Man speaking to group of women, some carrying loads on their heads

Magnet theater offers HIV-prevention messages in everyday scenes that people can relate to—and discuss as they happen.

Consultant Margaret Larson reports on “magnet theater” and its power to stop HIV

Editor's note: Margaret Larson is a 25-year veteran of broadcast journalism—formerly an NBC News correspondent, Dateline correspondent, and Today Show news anchor. Currently, she is the host of the TV program New Day Northwest.

How can you help a nation understand how to stop the spread of HIV if people don’t have regular access to health care, radio, or TV? PATH does it village by village, with street performances that entertain, inform, and provoke discussion. The idea itself seems ingenious to me—and the performances are all the more inspiring.

Village by village

We’re visiting a small village located on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. People are gathering in the town square, which is wrapped on three sides by a storage building, a few wooden benches, and rough-hewn shops selling a few items each. The only vehicles around are worn bicycles with fringed seats large enough to carry an extra passenger on the back.

I don’t have to understand one word of the local language to be captivated.

With puffs of red dirt rising around their bare feet, small children squeal with laughter and careen from behind a building, curious about us visitors and the performance, as it begins.

The actors—passionate, local volunteers trained by PATH’s Kenya staff—open the play in a “conga line,” swaying their hips, swatting tambourines, and singing at the top of their lungs. I don’t have to understand one word of the local language to be captivated.

Still from video about magnet theater

Magnet theater helps communities question social norms that may contribute to the HIV epidemic.

In a matter of seconds, the crowd is already laughing, drawing more people to its edges. That’s why they call this “magnet theater”—because it pulls you in. Everyone in the village has now turned out to see what’s going on.

One of the PATH staffers explains the scene I’m watching. The father in the play is considering whether to allow his young daughter to marry an older man. The prospective groom has money and can provide for the young woman, but the situation is awkward: Should the family ask that the suitor be tested for HIV? Isn’t that the right thing to do? Or would that request alienate him and end the daughter’s prospects for marriage? It’s a serious topic, but the actors are playing it broadly for humor. I can see that it’s working, since the audience is engaged and nodding knowingly.

Suddenly, the theater coordinator, a young man in a crisp shirt and tie, steps in and stops the play. The actors freeze in place, as the coordinator asks, “What should this family do?”

A woman in the audience raises her hand and says the family should definitely insist on the testing. Another man comments that the family should offer to pay for the testing. Spectators crane their necks for a better look and to listen to what their neighbors and friends have to say. As the discussion heats up, the coordinator tells the crowd that HIV testing is important for everyone, and he holds up coupons for free testing at a local site.

Person by person

Women watching a man and woman perform a theater scene in a classroom

In India, magnet theater helps empower sex workers to protect themselves. Read the story.

I look around and study the faces in the crowd. There are young women holding babies on their hips, men huddled with their friends, children playing with a deflated bicycle tire. They’re still smiling, but you can also see them pondering the subject matter. Everyone here knows someone stopped by AIDS; many of the children have lost a parent and are now in the care of weary grandparents. It’s very personal.

And very powerful. Magnet theater serves up lifesaving HIV-prevention messages in everyday scenes that people can relate to. It shines light on subjects that were once taboo and information once undiscovered. The ensuing discussion lays the groundwork for new social norms to take hold, making it possible for individuals to change habits and choose new, healthier behaviors.

Watching the community come together like this brings tears to my eyes and hope to my heart. Here the stage is set for stopping HIV.

Photos, from top: Wendy Stone, PATH, PATH/Satvir Malhotra.