Fort Worth — Adam Adolfo, Artes de la Rosa's artistic director, calls the company’s production of David Saar’s The Yellow Boat “an experiment”—and that’s true on a couple of levels. It’s the first time, he says, that a mainstage Artes production has teamed professional actors with young members of the Artes Academy. But the script itself also is something of an experiment: an attempt to tell the story of a child’s life in terms that seem to come from inside the mind and imagination of that child.
The blend of adult and youth talent onstage at the Fort Worth Cultural Center for the Arts’ Rose Marine Theater works well; it’s lively and engaging, and the story will appeal to pre-teens and teens as a simple, tender exploration of life, death, and how a creative young mind can find the courage and love to deal with both. Adults (jaded creatures that we are) may be less caught up in the child-driven language and plot, but there’s no denying Saar’s much-produced 1997 play has any number of heart-tugging moments. If you don’t reach for a hanky at least once, you have a heart of stone.
The Yellow Boat is the story of Benjamin Saar, the playwright’s son, a child born with hemophilia whose medical treatment in the mid-1980s exposed him to the AIDS virus. Benjamin, an artist whose love of drawing and color filled his life, died at age eight in 1987. In a folk song that became a bedtime ritual in the family, Benjamin and his parents repeated the story of three little boats—blue, red and yellow—that sailed from a harbor. The blue and red boats came back, but the yellow boat “sailed up to the sun.” Benjamin always told his parents, “You can be the red boat or the blue boat, but I am the yellow boat.”
The ensemble of actors, under Adolfo’s clever direction, moves around the stage as a fluid unit—flying together to become people and things: ambulances (waving gymnastic ribbons for the siren), medical equipment, Ben’s classmates, the hospital’s medical team. The stage is set with giant-sized crayons in the colors Benjamin loves, a few boxes, and a background that changes color at the speed of his imagination: “I see…red. I hear…blue. I taste…green. I choose…yellow.”
Artistic, fun-loving Benjamin (played by appealing sixth-grader Caden Large) and his loving, creative parents (Jake Harris and Laura L. Watson in touching, painful performances) find their lives taken over by a medical world that doesn’t yet know how to deal with HIV and AIDS. “I…DON’T…KNOW!” the doctors finally admit, as they try treatment after treatment. Family friends are frightened of getting close to Ben—remember, these are the early years of the epidemic—and it’s a breakthrough when best friend Eddy (Mara Retana helps us see Eddy’s good heart) comes to visit him at the hospital. Eddy says all the things the children in the audience must be thinking: Does it hurt? Do you cry? I never knew anybody who….” “Died?” says Benjamin. “Well, now you do.”
Ill and depressed, Benjamin takes a while to open up to Joy (a warm, outstanding performance by Jessica LaVilla), the hospital child specialist whose job it is to “find a well part” of Benjamin she can bring back to life and hope. Slowly, Joy and Ben become buddies—comrades in a battle, really—and she helps him start drawing again. Seeing a gray X-ray of his “insides,” Ben insists “that’s not what it feels like” and adds colors to help doctors know where his body feels OK, and where he feels the “red, red, red” of pain. Even at the end of life, Benjamin’s artistry is a source of comfort, and a way to keep feeling like a person, not a patient.
Artes de la Rosa notes that the AIDS Memorial Quilt began with one name, one square in 1987, the year Benjamin Saar died—and that today, the epidemic is far from over: “In the United States, one in four new HIV infections is among youth ages 13 to 24.” April 10 is National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day; there’s straightforward youth-oriented information from NYHAAD on Facebook or here.