Children’s musical explores opioid epidemic

EDUCATION THROUGH ENTERTAINMENT: Actors, from left, Hannah Williams, Rebekah Babelay, Aaron Ybarra and Anjie Grady rehearse a scene from "It's Just a Pill," a play by Melody Hays. Photo courtesy of Mountain Area Health Education Center

Melody Hays understands pain. As she struggled with myasthenia gravis and rheumatoid arthritis, unable to leave her bed for 10 years, she pondered how she could make a difference in the world and help others.

Hays eventually regained mobility and, after seeing a presentation by Dr. Blake Fagan of the Mountain Area Health Education Center, she dreamed that she asked him, “what are we doing for children?” The next morning, she woke up inspired to write a children’s musical. Hays is now a health care education planner at MAHEC.

On March 8, her new play for children, It’s Just a Pill, premiered at A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium. The 55-minute musical confronts the opioid epidemic from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl. The $155,000 budget has been raised through a combination of grants and private donations, some of which have come from unexpected sources.

“I had to stay in bed so long, and a lady visited every day for three of those 10 years,” Hays says. “A month ago, she donated money for this play. I had no idea that her dear son was a recovering addict who had used heroin.”

This woman’s son is one of the tens of thousands across the United States who are caught up in the opioid epidemic each year. In North Carolina alone, opioid-related overdose fatalities increased by more than 800 percent from 1999 to 2016, according to statistics from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“It truly could happen to anybody,” says Hays.

Slurry in a hurry

Fagan, who is MAHEC’s chief education officer, is one of several experts in medicine, opioid education and behavioral health who gave Hays input on her script. In her search for accuracy and authenticity, Hays also consulted Pennsylvania sixth-graders via a Google Hangouts chat. Even as Jolie, the play’s main character, is learning about opioids at school, she finds her own life disrupted as she realizes that the epidemic is affecting her family and friends. The play features dancing, singing, bright colors and hope. But as the plot unfolds, a dancing cough syrup bottle and dancing pills take on sinister overtones.

“The more magic we can show the kids and let them come along in the transformation, the better off we are,” director Bruce Hostetler said during a recent rehearsal.

Hostetler has directed more than 150 plays for children, and David Ruttenberg, who produced the musical score, has worked with Grammy winners Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson and Peter Gabriel. The songs are catchy, with lyrics like “Make a slurry in a hurry” and “I will narc, narc, narc to save a life.”

“I intentionally wrote memorable songs, so that children can remember the messages,” Hays explains. “Children are 50 percent less likely to try narcotics if they talk about narcotics with their parents.”

Unfortunately, some children’s parents struggle with opioid misuse themselves. During North Carolina’s 2016-17 fiscal year, 53 percent of the children in foster care in Buncombe County wound up there as a result of parental substance abuse, according to state figures.

Following the premiere, the play will go on tour, with performances in Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson counties, six in the Buncombe County Schools, three at Madison Middle School and one for the Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County. All told, this educational play will be seen by at least 4,000 students.

“If even one student leaves that play with more knowledge about opioids, it will be a success to me,” says Hays.

Removing stigma

Hays hopes her play will be a force for prevention. Among other things, It’s Just a Pill addresses how to safely store and dispose of medications by making a slurry with cat litter or coffee grounds. The play also illustrates the ways that opioid addiction can slip into people’s lives, such as one student using a classmate’s pain pills, or a father who becomes addicted to opioids after having them prescribed for back surgery..

“We want to remove stigma and offer multiple resources,” notes Hays. “We cover a lot in a short time span.”

Five regional non-Equity actors play 10 roles, and none of the actors are children. Parental permission will be required for students to attend the school performances, she points out. MAHEC and Vaya Health, which partners with care providers to help people with behavioral health and disability concerns, will provide a curriculum and supplemental materials at all the performance sites.

“We’ll have school nurses, school counselors, law enforcement and certified peer support available,” says Hays. “The whole point is not to drop a bomb and leave but to continue the conversation. We want to start generating conversations because change begins with awareness.”

After the tour ends, MAHEC hopes to make the script available to anyone who’s interested, including school and community groups, can stage a production. The goal is to also cover all production costs, so folks won’t have to pay to see the play.

To date, key funding sources include AmerisourceBergen, a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and an NC AHEC Investment Grant.

“I’m uplifted to see so many people working so hard,” says Hays. Donations can be made on the MAHEC website to support more performances, particularly in rural areas.

Looking forward to seeing her dream realized onstage, Hays says she feels stronger now and hopes her work can help save lives.

“I’ll probably be a puddle of tears,” she admits. “It’s been a labor of love.”

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