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Teen health educators hope to take their 'Madame Wright' show about AIDS, risky behavior to New York

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2012 - Club CHIPS is known for a stage performance, called “Madame Wright’s Place” in which teens rap, sing and use other musical forms to entertain their peers. But the underlying message is serious: Steer clear of risky behavior that might lead to HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and gang violence.

Until now, the performances have been in the St. Louis area, but the group is expanding its audience next week. It has been invited to take part in the Performing the World program, which takes place Oct. 4-7 in New York, and draws groups from around the world.

“Madame Wright’s Place” is set in a wax museum. Madame Wright opens the show with a monologue about the tragedy of disease and destruction among teens. She magically restores life to several teen wax figures. Each steps forward and acts as a peer health educator, telling stories about being devastated by problems such as AIDS.

“It’s a program to educate young people about various issues that affect them and about taking this information to their peers,” says Hassie Davis, the Club CHIPS program coordinator who also plays Madame Wright. She says the New York program is generating excitement because, “it’s an international platform. Not everyone gets invited to present at this conference.”

As for Club CHIPS’ peer health educator program, she asks, “This is a program to train our young people to be leaders in the community. What better way to reach teens than by having other teens teach them?”

The New York program’s theme revolves around whether art can save the world, notes Fanny Lebby, program manager for CHIPS in Motion, which uses the arts to help empower people to make changes in their lives.

“I always thought that art could do that,” Lebby says. “It gives young people options, helps them understand themselves a bit better, and teaches them responsibility and discipline.”

One performer, Ryan Young, 16, a student at Clyde Miller Academy, says the program gives him the chance “to express my talent and give back to my peers.”

Aja Swayne, 17, a student at Kirkwood High School, says the entire Club CHIPS program is positive. “If I weren’t here, I’d probably be on the street. Plus it’s fun to do something you love to do.”

Dayjah George, 16, a student at Parkway North High School, says the message seems tailored to some of her friends who are “doing a lot of bad things. My message is that they shouldn’t have sex with lots of people and if they do, at least use condoms.”

Mari McFadden, 17, a student at Clyde C. Miller Academy, says he especially likes one theater presentation that’s aimed at parents. Titled “Tales from the Crib,” it involves teens pretending to be babies and discussing harmful behavior they wish their mother would avoid, such as smoking and drinking during a pregnancy.

Club CHIPS, 2431 North Grand Blvd., is a summer and after school program that trains youngsters like these to be peer health educators. Although the official deadline for contributions for the New York trip has ended, CHIPS says it still welcomes donations.