June 8, 2010
Imani Harrington: Plays with the Positive
by Lauren Tuck
The playwright turns HIV issues into performing arts.
Imani Harrington had just completed her education in theater and acting in 1985 when she learned she was HIV positive. Now, Harrington writes plays to challenge predetermined concepts about HIV/AIDS and women’s rights. Harrington told POZ about the inspiration for her multiple award–winning work—and what she has coming up next.
How can plays educate people about HIV/AIDS?
I think plays have the potential to educate by stimulating conversation among people, igniting a dialogue about the themes and the particular issues that are brought up in a play—and being part of that, raising consciousness, is very important to me. Most often an audience goes to see the play, then they leave and talk about it over dinner. The question is, what can incite an audience to talk about a work? I think there are different factors: (1) Be engaged by the work, (2) Be inspired about it and (3) The play can be a jumpstart for discussion about issues. That can happen at different levels among individuals, in the community, in schools and forums. I think it depends on how writers position their work to say, “I care that people talk about this after the play in a certain context. I hope that people take my work, see it or read it and are able to dialogue around the particular themes and issues and how it reflects their [experience].”
Which of your characters do you most personally identify with?
I identify with Delphinia from the play Do You Have Time to Die? Delphinia is infected at an early age—21, and I learned that I was positive when I was rather young myself. [Like me,] she is African American, a woman, and she’s positive.
But she is also unlike me: She is pregnant, she is arrested and taken to an island offshore North America. Although that hasn’t been my experience—and I certainly hope that will never be my experience—I do identify with her.
[Delphinia] goes through a process of struggling to deal with the powers that be—the bureaucracy and the guards on a prison island. Essentially I was inspired to write Do You Have Time to Die? after I read a story about a sex worker who was arrested. Because she was positive, they put an electronic monitor on her. She couldn’t leave her house and could only go so far, 25 feet, by the court’s mandate. I remember thinking this is horrible. I wanted to add that to my character’s demise because I also did a minimal amount of research at Valley State Correctional Facility for Women. I was able to interview a few women who were incarcerated, and I took some of that information and put it into the context of the play.
Does your writing inspiration mostly come from your own personal experiences?
I think all writers have some way of identifying with our work on one level. Writers often distance themselves from their work for fear that it won’t be revered as artistic. Art is supposed to imitate life, and life is a reflection of who we are. I would say [my work is] not autobiographical, but aspects of the spirit of the [female characters] reflect my own spirit as a woman. I can identify with the characters that are faced with and at risk for HIV. Much of their truth resonates with my own. But I also think other people can also see themselves in the work, because of the broader social issues that I address.
What are you working on now?
Bitter Fruit is the work I am finishing up now. That’s been a long process. About a year ago I thought I was finished, but then I wasn’t happy with it. It’s been a painful process with a lot of growth, a big journey as an artist. Plus it has taken me a while to complete the work because I’ve gotten sick on a number of different occasions. I had to put my work down when that happened As a result, Bitter Fruit has been on a slow journey to becoming complete.
Bitter Fruit deals with the themes of HIV/AIDS, living, love and death in the context of a spirit world. It’s set in what I would consider post-Katrina New Orleans. The action takes place in an imaginary location called Cemetery Park—in New Orleans there is a park called City Park. It deals with families and the tangles and bonds of love, death, loss and reconciliation. It looks at their experience of putting their lives together after a series of floods. I juxtapose AIDS—what happens to the bodies and minds of individuals who become HIV positive—with slavery and the concept of jumping. Jumpers are individuals from slavery that never made it to the New World America because they decided to take their lives by jumping into the sea. And it looks at what happened in New Orleans after the flooding as a metaphor of exploration.
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