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Burlington Native Returns with Tales of Condom Riots and Colonialism

State of the Arts


Published April 16, 2008 at 11:17 a.m.

It's been a long, strange trip for David Schein since he graduated from Burlington High School in 1967. He left town to study drama and writing at the University of Iowa, did post-Beat experimental theater in Berkeley, taught drama in the projects of Chicago, and traveled to Europe, Tijuana and Ethiopia. What he's become, besides the director of the Arts Council for Chautauqua County in Jamestown, N.Y., is a sort of unofficial professor of what he calls "arts-a-nomics." That is, the study of bartering creativity for resources.

Take, for example, the topic of MYethiOPIA, Schein's upcoming solo performances in Burlington and Hardwick: his experiences forming and directing the Awassa AIDS Education Circus (now called One Love Theater). That's a troupe of street kids in southern Ethiopia who use their gymnastic, dance and drama skills to deliver HIV/AIDS-awareness messages. They've performed for hundreds of thousands of people in markets and refugee camps all over the country, garnering enough attention, and money, to start the Awassa Children's Project. That umbrella organization supports two NGOs in Awassa - an orphanage for children who have lost their parents to AIDS, and the One Love Theater.

Isn't there an easier way to reach a large population than putting on shows in marketplaces? Well, in Ethiopia, not really. "In a country without TV or radio," explains Schein, "where 50 percent of the people still don't have electricity, how are you going to get information across? In the markets. And how are you going to do it? Live performance."

Schein, now 58, first traveled to Ethiopia in 2002; at the time, he was directing theater programs for children in the Chicago projects. Some German friends were already in Ethiopia, working with the predecessor to One Love Theater, and feeding and educating the kids of Awassa. But they needed money for supplies and tuition. "So they contacted me and said, 'So, vat shall ve do with zeese children?'" Schein relates in a mock-German accent.

He had heard of a lucrative, effective AIDS-awareness program in Uganda, so he recommended focusing the kids' acrobatic talents on AIDS education through theater. The Germans invited Schein to Ethiopia; within three days of his arrival in Addis Ababa, he had raised enough to get the program going.

Schein has worked with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and won Hollywood Dramalogue Awards, but he says nothing compares to the primal authenticity of street theater. "You go right back to ritual and marketplace stuff, with donkeys and camels and thousands of people and singers and musicians," he says. "There are no critics, no parking problems; there is no recording contract, no wine-and-cheese reception after the show. It's real."

So real, in fact, that he and his performers were nearly trampled to death by a riotous crowd seeking condoms. That's just one of the mishaps Schein presents in his performance, and it gets to the meaning of the show's title, a conflation of the words "myopia" and "Ethiopia." In the performance, he moves back and forth in time to highlight the unavoidable naiveté of a well-intentioned American in a foreign culture, "who realizes with each trip that he knows less and less."

With time, though, Schein says he learned to accept the inscrutability and injustice of a land so different from his home, a place where the cost of feeding a hungry family for three months was equal to the price of his sneakers. "At first you go, 'Oh, this is terrible, this is awful, and oh, my God.' And then you go, 'Hey, that's how it is, man. Let's go rehearse.'"