Blood on the Dance Floor – Fighting stigma all around

Blood on the Dance Floor, a powerful theatre performance by Australian indigenous artist Jacob Boehme, is currently on tour in Canada. Created in collaboration with ILBIJERRI, one of Australia’s leading theatre companies known for its innovative works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, the Vancouver performance will run in at the Simon Fraser University Goldcorp Centre for the Arts Feb. 6–9.

Written in 2013 and based on the creator’s personal experiences of living at the intersection of being gay, indigenous and HIV positive, the play explores issues about being part of a minority that is often stigmatized by society. The play premiered in 2016 and won a Green Room Award in Melbourne in 2017.

“There were a couple of episodes in 2013. It was the 30th anniversary of the first HIV diagnosis in Australia, and the 15th anniversary of me living with HIV and my 40th birthday was coming. Those three things catapulted me into writing this play,” Boehme says.

Raising awareness

Boehme believes there is still a lot of confusion and humiliation around HIV, despite the facts that the virus is no longer lethal if detected early and no longer infectious if the carrier’s viral load is below threshold from treatment.

“When you look at HIV, it is a very different set of circumstances. If you live in the western world, you live with HIV, you don’t die from AIDS. However, there is still a lot of stigma and shame around it,” he says.

Never having an issue with his own sexuality and having to learn to live with HIV early on – since his 20s – the artist is grateful he has a good support network from family and friends.

“I was extremely lucky, and I know people who haven’t been so lucky, and their pain is a lot greater – not because of the virus, but because of the rejection and isolation that some people have faced,” he explains.

A not-so-different struggle

Since the virus is transmitted mostly through blood, Boehme says he realized he could not write a story about HIV without looking at his own blood, encompassing everything about the struggle and legacy of his family.

Boehme recognizes that his experience as a fair-skinned child – his father indigenous and his mother Australian – has probably been very different to that of his father and grandmother who are quite dark-skinned.

“This is a story about hope. It is about a common and ordinary need to be loved. In order to get over the shame and the stigma, I look to my ancestors and my family, and I look at a time in Australia that was very hard for my family to live in and they lived and they survived.” he says. “So this is not the hardest thing you have to go through, dealing with HIV.”

Formally trained in theatre, dance and puppetry, as well as inheriting his craft from indigenous elders, Boehme says dancing is in his blood; family members from both his parents’ sides are dancers.

“I got 20 years of history of working with our song men and song women, who are keepers of our ceremonies. From working in traditional arts, and knowing that we have dramaturgy that is older than Shakespeare or Aristotle, the challenge was how to make a contemporary version using this dramaturgy rather than western dramaturgy,” Boehme explains.

Through exploring the evolution of family in three generations with the play, the artist also sheds light on the struggles of the indigenous people that are still relevant today.

“It is governmental, it is societal, it is privilege. It is privilege keeping people from seeing the truth. It is this refusal to acknowledge the pain of the past. ‘I didn’t cause that directly myself. That was generations ago, why should we have to pay for it?’ That is not the point. If you continue to uphold oppressive systems of power and abuse, then you are part of that,” he adds.

Through the play, Boehme hopes to raise awareness about HIV, that it still exists and encourage ongoing vigilance. But at the same time, he also hopes to cast a positive light on people who live with HIV, and for the audience to see them on stage and not represented as someone who is infectious, sick or dying.

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