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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Troupe takes HIV act on the rails

Troupe takes HIV act on the rails

Troupe takes HIV act on the rails

troupe.jpg
troupe.jpg

Round One: Actors dressed as the HIV virus and an oversized condom circle each other,

ready to pounce.

Round Two: In a blur of red boxing gloves, they throw punches, duck and weave. HIV

gets aggressive.

Performers Oun Sovankiri and Tes Ley hand out information about AIDS and drugs in train cars.

Round Three: HIV goes for the kill, but condom "Number One" fakes him out.

The virus is down and one, two, three, four, five ... out.

AIDS awareness in Cambodia isn't all about boring lectures

and informational pamphlets. Through dramatic skits, the kids of PHARE, an NGO run

out of Battambang, make safe sex education an event.

The HIV-boxing match was just one part of a repertoire the group took on the rails

recently. Traveling by train from Battambang to Phnom Penh and back (Oct. 3-4), they

stopped along the way to perform acrobatics, skits and demonstrations in Cambodia's

AIDS-ravaged countryside.

"We had done this before, but never on the train," said Khuon Det, who

manages the performance troupe. "I thought it would be a good idea because many

people who travel this way and who live in the country are poor and don't know about

AIDS."

In the past, the group, which is comprised of former street children, has put on

productions to educate Cambodians about landmines, human trafficking and people with

disabilities.

"Our mission is to entertain and to make people happy when we help them to understand

these issues," Det said.

To do this, adult supervisors enlist the help of PHARE's performers. All 16 members

of the group get together to come up with ideas for skits. They then practice for

three to four months before staging a production, using theatrical skills gained

through the NGO's program.

"We like to educate people about social issues," said Chhit Phearath, 18,

who wore long black robes and skull-design face paint to play the HIV virus.

Their most recent production combines information about drugs and AIDS.

"If people use drugs it can lower their spirits and they won't be in control

of themselves," Phearath said. "Then they might have sex and get AIDS."

The group mixes physical stunts, humor and information to get this message across,

he said.

It seems to work.

Before leaving Phnom Penh for Battambang, performers staged their boxing match skit

in the train station. Travelers crowded around the group's flatbed train car, lured

by the booming voice of 24-year-old midget Tes Ley, who plays the referee.

Some in the audience murmured that they didn't consider unprotected sex risky. That

soon changed. When Phearath appeared on the platform, jagged strips of black cloth

streaming from his arms, a hat of sinister points covering his head, the disbelievers

started to take AIDS more seriously.

"That makes me afraid," the men whispered to each other.

Afterward, they came up to actors dressed in white nurses' uniforms, who had been

using an artificial penis to demonstrate safe condom application.

"Can you show us again how to do that?" one asked. "We don't want

to get AIDS."

When the train set off, the show went on. Costumed actors staggered through the bumps,

jumping from car to car as the rails rushed beneath them.

"I'm king of the world-no one can kill me," shouted condom Number One,

Oun Sovankiri, 22, as he ran through the cars, performing pieces of the group's skit.

Other characters trailed behind him, passing out information about drugs and safe

sex.

Even though engine failure caused a three-hour delay, actors remained energetic and

geared up for another performance in Pursat. An impromptu audience at the rural station

greeted them warmly.

Kids thronged the stage, which was decorated with a large blue backdrop. One side

had pictures representing ways you could transmit HIV, while the other featured safe

behaviors. In the center, a painted depiction of Number One squashed small red demons

with his feet.

Aboard a unicycle, "cyclo driver" Preap Poch, 18, burst onstage, pushing

a wheelchair to complete his makeshift vehicle. Kids shrieked as he drove around

noticeably uneasy passengers, pretending to nearly tip them over.

Poch went on to inhale fumes from a large jug of glue. Even though actors dressed

as AIDS activists warned him using drugs might make him lose control of his behavior,

he didn't believe them.

"I use drugs and it's very good for my health - it makes me strong," he

said. "I don't believe AIDS will come to my body."

In the skit, Poch ended up contracting the HIV virus through unprotected sex. All

the while, actors bounded onstage performing tricks - flips, cartwheels, stunts with

ladders - to hold the audience's attention.

The show's packaging is upbeat, but the message is somber.

While many people responded to the performance with laughter, Khlaing Vanna, 40,

of Pursat, watched quietly. For her, it was a startling experience.

"I heard about this and came to see because I wanted to learn more about AIDS,"

she said. "My husband has many girlfriends and I'm worried he will bring it

into our home."

Vanna said the skit convinced her to be more careful.

"Before, I didn't use condoms all the time," she said. "But now -

always."

Additional translation provided by Jun Soktia.

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