Children's theater production seeks to teach community about HIV, AIDS

Thursday, January 13, 2011 | 6:23 p.m. CST; updated 6:58 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 13, 2011
Britton Stamps, 10, plays a child who died of AIDS-related complications in "The Yellow Boat" on Wednesday. The play runs Jan. 14-16 at Jesse Auditorium.

COLUMBIA — Metallic stethoscopes, syringes and multicolored pens lie on a table backstage as the performers and stage crew position the props and prepare for the dress rehearsal. With the help of a single yellow boat, 13 actors and actresses, ages 8 to 19, will teach Columbia about a child's experience with a life-threatening disease.

Performing Arts in Children's Education, or PACE, is a local nonprofit acting program for Columbia children. It will perform "The Yellow Boat" on Friday at MU's Jesse Hall. The play, based on a true story from the 1980s, is written by David Saar.

If you go

What: "The Yellow Boat"

Where: Jesse Auditorium at MU.

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; matinee 10 a.m. Friday for local school students.

Cost: $10 for adults; $7 for students with IDs; $5 for children 12 and under

Tickets: Available at the door. The box office opens one hour prior to the show, and the house opens 30 minutes before the show.

This show is appropriate for ages 8 and above.

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Benjamin Saar, David Saar's son, suffered from a disorder that prevented his blood from clotting, forcing him to undergo frequent blood transfusions. One transfusion tainted Benjamin's blood with HIV, a virus that baffled medical professionals at the time.

Angela Howard, PACE's artistic director, said she remembers the fear surrounding the spread of HIV and AIDS, and she understands Benjamin's story. In the play, he experiences rejection because other characters in the play are unfamiliar with the disease.

"PACE's mission is to educate through theater," Howard said. "Knowledge helps dispel fears, and this story in particular educates the public about AIDS issues."

PACE Executive Director Megan White said people distance themselves from AIDS sufferers because of the stigma associated with the disease. She said she hopes that after the performance the audience will understand "what it is to be human."

"You just learn so much when you do one of these productions," she said. "You learn about things at a deeper level. We want to educate the community about the issue."

"The Yellow Boat" is PACE's fourth annual Arts in Health production. The shows are designed to educate the community about health issues affecting children. In previous years, plays have focused on leukemia, Down syndrome and autism.

Howard said PACE invites local experts to speak about each year's topic.

Britton Stamps, who portrays Benjamin Saar, said his mother, physician Ruanne Stamps, was this year's speaker. Britton, 10, said he is better informed about the issue, but his role presented some difficulties. In one scene, his character asks his parents what it is like to die.

"I had to act like I was dying," he said.

While the play focuses on a serious medical condition, it also delves into Benjamin's imagination, as his love for drawing and coloring plays out. During the show, the backdrop varies its spectrum of color: red, blue, purple and yellow. The set's most constant prop, a yellow boat about 8 feet long, is often the only prop on the set. The boat — derived from Benjamin's favorite bedtime story about a yellow boat ascending to the sun — is a symbolic vehicle for the child's voyage.

In contrast to the colors that accent the stage, all the characters except Benjamin wear black. Benjamin wears a Kelly green T-shirt to differentiate himself as a character and a narrator.

"I relied on the story for my character's emotion," said Julian Foley, a Columbia College freshman who plays David Saar. "It is challenging but rewarding."

White said she first saw "The Yellow Boat" 10 years ago at a high school play festival near Winston-Salem, N.C. She said the well-written script, washes of color and emotional impact coaxed tears from her eyes. When she selected the play in 2010, she said the story still made her cry. She was amazed that children could convey such a sentiment.

"The most interesting part of PACE is working with the kids," White said. "They just make me laugh. They make me cry. Sometimes, I have to remember they are just young people."

Some of the performers have practiced for two to four hours for 12 Saturdays, in addition to personal preparation time.

Kailin Tintes, who plays Benjamin's mother, Sonja, said she practiced about seven  hours per week. Tintes, 15, said she would rehearse her lines with her mother, Joy Tintes.

"Acting is a good way to cheer up when you feel down," Tintes said. "You leave everything at the door and forget things for a while."

Joy Tintes said she joined the PACE board because of the organization's positive influence on kids.

"('The Yellow Boat') shows how you deal with adversity and sends a message to kids about compassion," she said.

Some scenes enact a moment from Benjamin's imagination, while others rely on visuals to explain medical concepts to children.

"I hope (the audience) takes away Benjamin's story," White said. "I hope they look at life and appreciate every moment. Just because a child has a disorder, they are no different from you or I."

"The Yellow Boat" will premier at 7 p.m. Friday night in Jesse Auditorium.

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