The art of dignity

Susan Metz is thinking about a particular Spanish word — “Sensibilizacion,” she says.

The word refers to sensitizing people to something, explains Metz, director of the documentary Living with Dignity: HIV Positive in Cuba.

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of her film project, which she brings to Asheville on Nov. 17.

Metz is a retired teacher who has traveled extensively in Latin America both as a researcher and as a social activist. She has been particularly interested in Cuba’s state-run health and educational programs, and traveled twice to the island country in the late 1990s to examine the country’s public services.

During one of her trips there, she became acquainted with a filmmaker who, like Metz, had been personally affected by the AIDS epidemic.

“Because we had at that time recently both lost beloved friends to the epidemic and both wanted to contribute in some way … we tried to figure out what our resources were, and what we could put together,” Metz recalls.

United States government sources show that out of Cuba’s 11.2 million residents, 2,800 of them are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. (The U.S., with a population of 280.5 million, has an estimated 850,000 HIV-positive residents.)

However, Metz avoids a just-the-facts approach in her film, realizing that people relate better to stories than to statistics.

“We came up with the idea of making a documentary that’s not about [health] information, but about people’s experiences,” Metz says, “and [then] using playback theater as a way of heightening reality so that we could move our audiences.”

Raphael Peter, managing director of Asheville Playback Theatre, describes this type of performance as interactive and improvisational, honoring “people’s personal dreams and stories.

“Someone comes out of the audience and shares something from their life and gets to cast the performers on the stage,” Peter explains. “Then the actors, using improvisation in many different forms, will ‘play back’ their story.”

But the impact of playback goes beyond simply relating a story in conversation.

“You actually get to see it coming to life in front of you,” explains Peter, noting how pleased he is to see Living With Dignity — which he first experienced at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y, last summer while studying with international playback-theater performers there — come to Asheville.

“I’ve seen a lot of playback [from different companies], and I have not seen artistry of this kind, [with] Cuban actors portraying and playing back these people [with AIDS] living in sanitariums,” he says. “The dignity of them was amazing.

“After it was done, [Metz] said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ and I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ “

What the filmmaker shows is about an hour of uncut footage of Cuban playback actors performing the stories of three HIV-positive individuals, which Metz will translate and narrate for the audience. But this footage is only part of the final documentary she envisions. She hopes to have the film completed in time for a debut at an international meeting on AIDS in the Caribbean, to be held in Cuba’s capital, Havana, in April 2003.

Following the presentation of the film, the Asheville Playback Theatre, presently in its eighth season, will solicit reactions and stories from the audience, which they will then interpret and perform.

Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre opens the show with a singing- and percussion-enhanced performance addressing America’s own AIDS crisis — though their contribution, too, will exhibit a Cuban flavor.

“We have gone to Cuba three times in the past year, and we truly love the people there,” says ACDT’s Susan Collard. “We performed in the international festival there in March [of] last year, and we were integrated into the festival with all the Cuban dancers, and [with] dancers from other places in the world.”

Donations accepted at the show will — in addition to helping fund Metz’s travels to screen her film-in-progress — benefit the Western North Carolina AIDS Project and be used to support Cuba’s resource-short playback theater.

Peter has been very pleased at the dramatic display of community support for the local screening. Food, a rental car and temporary lodging for Metz have been donated, as well as a performance space at the Cathedral of All Souls — not to mention the time and effort of ACDT performers.

“It shows how the creative and the performing arts can support something that has to do with social action,” Peter observed.

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