Breast Cancer Message at Heart of N.C. Play

A new play in Durham, N.C., Stealing Clouds, uses drama to show what African-American women face when they get breast cancer.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Most people still expect to get their health information from a doctor, nurse, or other health professional. But in Durham, North Carolina, theater is being used to educate the public about an important health issue.

Stealing Clouds uses drama to show what African-American women face when they get breast cancer. North Carolina public radio's Rose Hoban reports.

ROSE HOBAN reporting:

The play's main character, Katherine James, is an African-American woman in her late 30s. She's recently found a lump in her breast and been told it's cancer. In this scene, she tells her teenage daughter Kanesha about it.

(Soundbite of play, Stealing Clouds)

Unidentified Woman: (As Kanesha) Mama, you're wrong. You don't have it. The doctors are wrong. You need to get a second opinion.

Unidentified Woman: (As Katherine) Baby, I got a lump in my breast. A second opinion ain't gonna change that.

HOBAN: Stealing Clouds ran for two weekends at North Carolina's Central University in Durham. It was the fourth play produced at the university to educate about health issues prevalent in African-Americans. Others tackled heart disease, stroke, and drug abuse and HIV - all of which disproportionately affect the black community.

Dr. Jonathan Livingston heads community outreach for the BBRI - the Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Institute at the university. His department co-produced the plays.

Dr. JONATHAN LIVINGSTON (Head, Community Outreach, Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Institute): Folks began to emotionally connect themselves with the process. They began to see folks who look like them experiencing this, and, you know, health disparities and then breast cancer's told within a story. Yeah, I think it's more powerful.

HOBAN: Four years ago, Livingston's institute teamed up with the school's theater department to create the plays, all original productions. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, they use a methodology popular around the world to get health information across.

Mr. HOWARD CRAFT (Writer, Stealing Clouds): As a playwright, you have to balance the art side with the information side.

HOBAN: Howard Craft wrote Stealing Clouds. The Durham-based writer also wrote last year's play, an exploration of drug addiction and HIV. He says it's a challenge to get in the health information and keep conversations sounding real.

Mr. CRAFT: Dr. Livingston, he was very good about allowing me to do what I do. You know, of course, there's certain things they want to have, because they're trying to measure certain things. But he wasn't overbearing with it, and he didn't try to impede on the creative process.

HOBAN: Craft interviewed survivors and read scientific papers. Then his own life became part of his research.

Mr. CRAFT: During the writing of the script, my fiancée's close college friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she's only 34 years old. So some of those conversations as well ended up as material to explore in the play.

(Soundbite of play, Stealing Clouds)

Unidentified Woman: (As Katherine James) I just keep thinking if I hadn't gone to the doctor, I wouldn't be going through none of this. Girl, I lost (unintelligible), started throwing away food. Everything was an ingredient I cooked for naps. It was all processed. It's like everywhere I go, everything I do, I see cancer.

HOBAN: After each performance of Stealing Clouds, Jonathan Livingston asks the audience to fill out a short survey. In several months, he'll follow up to see if the message stuck.

Dr. LIVINGSTON: Last year, folks indicated that the play had an impact upon them. It was memorable. They became more active, involved. Folks even indicated that there was some increases in donating money to drug abuse efforts last year.

HOBAN: Research published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted younger black women get breast cancer less often than their white peers. But when they do, it's more aggressive.

The play's director, Karen Dacons-Brock, says she was disturbed to learn black women are diagnosed at later stages of their cancer and die more often than whites. So she made an appointment for a mammogram.

Ms. KAREN DACONS-BROCK (Director, Stealing Clouds): I hadn't had one in two years, so I'm scheduled now to go and get one.

HOBAN: Dacons-Brock has directed all the plays in the series. She says Stealing Clouds - like the other productions - works in multiple levels.

Ms. DACONS-BROCK: Both men and women I think will benefit from seeing the play. And it's not just didactic, it's not just teaching something. I mean, it is a play that actually could stand alone, you know, without being attached to this outreach that we're doing.

HOBAN: And Dacons-Brock says theater is a powerful way to spread the word about preventing and treating disease. She hopes others will want to produce Stealing Clouds or maybe create a play like it in their community.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Hoban.

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