Upper School drama students tackled a difficult topic with their Fall 2016 production of The Yellow Boat. Freshman David Casimes '20, who played Benjamin, the protagonist, writes about what he and the cast learned as they set forth into uncharted territory:
Being Benjamin in The Yellow Boat, was a learning experience. Benjamin was diagnosed with hemophilia at a young age. After a fall, he has a blood transfusion and contracts the HIV-AIDS virus. In the 1980s, there was fear and doubt about the origin of AIDS and how it was transmitted. Benjamin and his family deal with this when all his friends leave their side.
Having a disease like cancer or a virus scares society. Fear controls how we act around the afflicted. This was especially true in the 1980s, when little was known about HIV-AIDS. To perform this play and do it justice involved a lot of research. We met with Thrive Alabama to learn about their efforts to educate people and prevent HIV-AIDS, and we spoke with the author of the play, the real-life Benjamin's father, about his son and his family's experiences.
The Yellow Boat gave a beautiful gift to the cast, crew, and anyone who saw the show; the gift was empathy. They say you never understand someone until you are in their shoes. We may not have lived their actual lives, but we did rehearse it for three months and performed it.
The Yellow Boat gave us insights on fear, love, and the power of knowledge.
Other production members also appreciated the challenges of the subject and how grappling with it made them more empathetic.
“AIDS is a complex subject. It’s not something we talk about a lot,” said student director Sarahkate Marsden ’18. But while the play posed many challenges, it also offered students a huge opportunity to learn and grow as they navigated a difficult subject and tried to figure out how the play should look and feel.
Coner McFarlin ’17 was involved with theater tech and design. “The goal with the show,” he said, “was to offer a celebration of Benjamin's life instead of a tragic story of death; the design was meant to reflect that.” The set resembled a dock, with crayons as posts. “What I really focused on throughout building the set was color. Color was very important to Benjamin. In the script he spends so much time drawing. Color becomes a way for him to express himself. So the dock was a neutral gray-white tone, sort of like a blank canvas, while the crayons, live animation, and lighting colored the stage. The drawings we used depicted how children would imagine or depict medical treatment.”
Seniors Faith and Holland Meier and Liz Sheible researched art therapy. "I want to study music therapy in college," Liz added. "This show helped me get a deeper understanding of how Benjamin used art therapy to process his experience."
"I want to be a doctor," said stage manager Rachel Rezabek '17, "I shadowed a doctor for Interim last year, and contrasting the stigma and fear surrounding HIV-AIDS then with the protocols that are in place now was really interesting."
In terms of learning more about the disease and societal reaction, they found parallels to their own understanding and that of the characters in the play. In her staging, Sarahkate tried to portray the stigma that many families in that situation felt. In one scene, friends encircle the family to offer comfort and support, all the while stepping further and further away from them.
"It made us wonder how we would react if we were in their situation," said Kathleen Brooks '17, who played Benjamin's mother.
The students' visit to Thrive Alabama was impactful because they learned the extent to which HIV-AIDS is a local issue and they got to ask questions. "We learned so much. We all walked out with something," Holland '17 reflected.
"My parents lived through the '80s and I was telling them stuff they didn't even realize," said Payton Alongi '17.
Doing a show at Randolph requires students to do a lot of thinking. "Mrs. Voight is there every step of the way," said one student, "but she keeps asking us, What do you think?, so we have to figure it out."
"She makes us dig," added Payton. "We have to discover it for ourselves."
"There's a point where you have to know your character inside and out and feel that this is happening to you," said Alexa Nunn '17, who played an art therapist at the hospital. And when they get to that point, Alexa added, Mrs. Voight expects them to be able to answer their own questions about how a character might say or do something.
"When a student struggles, and a teacher or peers provide insight, motivation, support, guidance, or another direction, that student grows in often transformational ways," says Sue Samuels, Director of Fine Arts." Experiences like these create the JOURNEY, which so often provides the opportunities to learn and grow even more than reaching the destination."
You can listen to a WLRH radio interview with seniors Rachel Rezabek, Katie Kessler and Kathleen Brook, and representatives of Thrive Alabama.