Thursday, April 16, 2009
Sarah Jones does health disparties in ten voices
I am attending my third annual conference thrown by the Association of Health Care Journalists. Each has featured its own blockbuster with wow factor.
In 2007 they managed to book Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to break the news of his statewide health care program for California. That later died on the vine, but it was a bold proposal and quite a coup to get the celebrity governor to make it in front of us.
Last year they had Secretary Mike Leavitt, head of Health and Human Services, break the national news of his department's new electronic health records systems. I know, it's not an exclusive with The Terminator, but for a roomfull of health journalists it had oomph. They also threw in Elizabeth Edwards as keynote speaker (before John boy's fall from grace).
This year they pulled in the wonderful writer and performer Sarah Jones to do her polyphonic monologue The Right to Care, which does health care disparities in ten voices: a homeless black woman, a Dominican college student, a Korean pharmacist, a hip-hop barber, a Salvadorean veteran of the U.S. military, a lesbian Indian physician, an Italian American Long Island nurse, a Blackfoot community organizer, a Somali Girl Scout from Minneapolis and an elderly Jewish widow.
The character shifts were done almost entirely with her voice. The only props were a few rows of chairs with jackets thrown over them. As she changed characters she changed jackets, and (at most) eyeglasses. The chairs also fit the drama, because the dramatic premise was that each of these characters was presenting before a Congressional subcomittee. The jackets were the various people waiting their turns to speak.
When they spoke, they spoke of pain and exclusion.
"When rich people start to feel it, it's a national crisis," said the homeless woman.
"I feel just like this one lucky Guinea pig in this experiment," the Dominican college student said about leaving her family's unhealthy urban environment for the safety of a university campus.
"We need to break this silence and help people of all backgrounds in a language they understand," said the Korean pharmacist.
"We are in as much danger from drive-thru windows as drive-by shootings," said the hip-hop barber (or, in his self-styled terms, the "folicular aesthetics counselor").
"I will fight for this country," said the Salvadorean veteran of the U.S. military - "and I pray there is no one inside this country who is trying to fight me back."
"It is this hospital system that is in need of intensive care," said the lesbian Indian physician.
"I don't want to waste your time with information your assistants may already keep on file," said the Blackfoot Indian community organizer.
"It was so white," the Somali Girl Scout says of ending up in Maine - "and there was snow, too!"
"You can't spend all those years of your life seeing that you will be taken care of when you get older, only to have it all taken from you," said the elderly Jewish widow.
I have not included in this catalogue a quote from the Italian American nurse from Long Island, whom (Jones said, in a Q&A following the performance) is modeled on a woman who once cared for Jones' mother when she was hospitalized. (Both of Jones' parents are physicians, by the way.)
This particular character is something of a ringer, thrown in to give voice to a different sort of American minority - the white reactionary. Jones said that when she has performed this piece before audiences lacking in diversity, this character gets all of the laughs.
The Long Island nurse drew some painful laughs from our diverse crowd of health care journalists.
"Look at Oprah! I mean, hello?" she said. "When will people be satisfied? Not even with a black president, apparently."
The show begins and ends with the homeless woman character, who is presented as the conscience of the piece - and who tried to be the conscience of the Congress. She challenges the elected officials she has been addressing, "If you can look into my face and you don't see yourself, somebody has stole your soul."
Jones first performed The Right to Care in 2005 after being commissioned to write it by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She said said the foundation continues to subsidize her performances of the piece, which she books out of her home office.
I buttonholed her as she was leaving the conference hotel after the performance. I told her that I work for a newspaper in St. Louis published by an African-American oral surgeon. I explained that our paper also has a foundation that annually produces a Salute to Excellence in minority health. I told her she needs to come next year and perform this piece at our Health Salute.
"I'll do it," she said. "Contact me through my office."
I'll do that. I'll hold her to that. St. Louis needs to experience Sarah Jones and The Right to Care. I'll make sure we have that opportuntity.
Image of Sarah Jones got up as the homeless woman character from W.K. Kellogg Foundation.