HIV-related productions aren’t… rare. “Angels in America” (by American playwright Tony Kushner) and “Rent” (a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson) easily come to mind. Even if experiences re HIV transcend geography (e.g. issues with access to testing, and treatment/care/support; stigma and discrimination; et cetera), these are, of course, still very… Western.
It is, therefore, refreshing when this issue is tackled using a localized lens; and this is what the staging of Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) “Under My Skin” is aiming to do.
As written by Rody Vera and directed by Melvin Lee, “Under My Skin” is part of PETA’s 52nd Theater Season finale, said to reflect PETA’s advocacy for raising awareness and starting conversations towards pressing issues – e.g. HIV in this case in particular.
As FYI: “Under My Skin” is a collection of stories of Filipinos living with HIV (said to be based on people that Vera personally knows). Their stories are woven together by an epidemiologist, a certain Dr. Gemma Almonte, who provides background info re HIV in the Philippines – e.g. what CD4 means, how HIV is transmitted (and how it’s not transmitted), the number of Filipinos infected with HIV (at least as of 2018), et cetera.
Consider this an “educational play”, where we get the dramatic narrative interspersed with statement of facts.
Now, does this work?
Yes and no; and here are five reasons why you should watch “Under My Skin”, plus five other reasons why you may opt to skip it…
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- That there are now 34 new HIV cases in the Philippines every day is a reminder of how bad the local situation is. In 2016 (only four years ago), the number was just 16. So… yes, the situation is getting worse.
Talking about this (in whatever format) is, therefore, necessary; and “Under My Skin” doing exactly this, making it commendable indeed.
- This is a somewhat big production – e.g. to start, it’s produced by PETA; and it stars the likes of TV, film and theater artists Cherry Pie Picache, Roselyn Perez, Miguel Almendras, Mike Liwag, Anthony Falcon and Dylan Talon.
- The approach – which attempts to be as comprehensive as possible – is noteworthy. HIV activists are the first to stress that HIV is NOT just a medical problem; this is a social issue that needs a holistic response (e.g. we have to deal with the medical concerns, yes, but we also have to deal with social issues that touch on HIV, from stigma and discrimination, legal protections and failures, et cetera).
For “Under My Skin” to want to cover as much as possible is – at least – commendable.
- This is an issue that affects us all; and to be given a glimpse about this THIS way is good, indeed. There was a time when (less informed) people thought HIV only affects gay men (it was even named as “gay-related” infectious disease when the epidemic/pandemic just started). But we know better now – i.e. HIV does NOT discriminate, affecting children, rich, poor, Black, White, Asians, differently-abled, employed/unemployed, and so on and so forth…
As an issue OF everyone, knowing about HIV is important; and the glimpse given by “Under My Skin” is commendable.
- That open forum at the end of the play.
Now, exactly because HIV-related performances remain rare in the Philippines, and “Under My Skin” is a relatively “new” attempt here, there’s this seeming want to be “everything for everyone”. Alas, even this isn’t possible, with core issues still not (properly) tackled (see below on this, too). Because of this, it is good that there is an open forum at the end of “Under My Skin”; an attempt to further discuss the issues that those watching may still have.
TIME FOR UPDATES
Now this isn’t exactly a “perfect” play (but then again, what is, considering that even “Rent” has issues with tackling PWID/people who inject drugs, among others). And for me, there are a handful of things that could help better “Under My Skin.”
- Outdated data, thus less emphasis on science-backed truths re HIV (e.g. U=U).
Onstage, you’d be shown HIV-related data from 2018. That’s… AGES when talking about HIV. Because, yes, while some facts remain (e.g. HIV transmission), some info that even HIV activists share need to be updated (e.g. U=U).
There are some “facts” PLHIVs in the Philippines are being told – e.g. that meds in the Philippines are “free”. And this needs to be confronted because: A) of the false narrative, and B) for giving PLHIVs “false hope”. Specific to “free” ARV, let it be stated that a PLHIV needs to pay PhilHealth before he/she can access the life-saving meds.
- Over-emphasis on gays.
During the Q&A of the performance I watched, one of the questions asked was: “Why the over-emphasis on gays?”. This is a question that’s worth highlighting because, yes, this play is… over 80% about gays and HIV. The tackling of heterosexual people/relationships vis-a-vis HIV isn’t extensively done (see 4 and 5 below). And in the move to make people understand that HIV is everyone’s issue, this is… detrimental.
- Stereotypical narratives – e.g. serodifferent couples won’t work, one has to stay with a poz lover because “you only have each other”, “thank God I’m negative”, and so on.
As early as 2010, 2011, a friend who has HIV already stated to me how it’s sad that HIV-related stories almost always focus on the drama, often ending in something tragic/sad (for instance, the death of the PLHIV). This immediately negates the experiences of many PLHIVs – e.g. those who find love even with non-poz.
Because yes, many of the issues that the HIV community encountered before remain relevant now (e.g. people are still dying from it, there are still issues re access to treatment), but stereotypes need to be revisited (related to #1 above).
- Pahapyaw touches on… a lot of things.
U=U was “mentioned”; the law was mentioned; et cetera. It’s like “Under My Skin” wanted to cover everything, but ended up not giving these aspects the merit they deserved. And exactly because of this approach, the play needs to be “tightened” because many of these issues have to be emphasized.
To start talks about HIV, this is a commendable effort. But that’s just to start; because much more needs to be done as we continue battling HIV.
“Under My Skin” will be showing until March 22 (Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays/Sundays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm) at the PETA Theater Center, #5 Eymard Drive, Brgy. Kristong Hari, New Manila, Quezon City. For tickets and showbuying inquiries, contact PETA at firstname.lastname@example.org or 8725-6244, or TicketWorld at www.ticketworld.com.ph or 8891-9999.