Love Boat

The Yellow Boat is the true story of a young boy who's dying, and about how love and art can transform tragedy. It's a much-produced children's play that succeeds on several levels: as an educational tool, as a morality tale, and as entertainment for kids and grown-ups. Mostly, though, The Yellow Boat is a drama that delivers its message without the mawkishness of so many death-be-not-proud programs.

The play was written by Childsplay artistic director David Saar about his son, Benjamin, an 8-year-old hemophiliac who died in 1987 of complications caused by a transfusion of blood tainted with the AIDS virus. Saar founded Childsplay 25 years ago in response to the typical kiddy shows offered by children's theaters; instead of the usual fairy tales and comic romps, Saar and a troupe of young hopefuls set out to offer more thoughtful programs. The company grew into a nationally renowned organization, and The Yellow Boat which premièred at Childsplay in 1993, and has since been produced around the world, translated into several languages, and been awarded the 1998 American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Play Award is its crowning jewel.

In spite of its tragic topic, the play is bright with ideas and careful comedy. Benjamin is a typical kid with an atypical talent for drawing. Although his crayon sketches look pretty much like most little-boy drawings, Benjamin deals with particularly grown-up subjects: rejection, ostracism, death. Granted, he was a child artist who spent a good deal of time being shunned by other kids and receiving blood transfusions in hospitals, but his drawings many of which are displayed in the lobby of the theater after each performance are still eerily adult.

The Yellow Boat takes its name from a Norwegian lullaby Benjamin's mother used to sing to him, "Busen Lull," about a yellow boat "that sailed straight up to the sun." After his HIV-positive diagnosis, Benjamin sees himself as the yellow boat, separate from others; because of a more limited understanding of AIDS in the early 1980s, most of the people in Benjamin's life withdraw from him. His friends aren't allowed to play with him; their parents don't understand his illness; and, in what I found to be the saddest moment in the play, he's asked to leave his school. Eventually he dies, having inspired friends and family to live brightly colored lives.

The original production was helmed by Saar, but this time out, Childsplay associate artistic director Graham Whitehead is directing. Several original cast members are returning (notably absent is Jon Gentry, who played Benjamin in the original production), and the acting is consistently superb. Whitehead's inventive staging finds a prop "boat" turned into an ambulance, a bed, and the furniture in a hospital room, and Alan Ruch's imaginative music evokes various moods and even the blips of assorted medical machines. Paul Black's evocative lighting design splashes the stage with the color of Benjamin's drawings, and leaves us in darkness once he's gone.

The Yellow Boat succeeds in good part because it's never patronizing, never assumes that kids don't get its subtext of death and dying, and because Saar writes realistically childlike dialogue. He uses this catchy kid-speak to cut through the syrupy stuff in several scenes, as when Benjamin reassures a friend who's worried about catching AIDS by telling him, "You can't get it just from sitting next to me. It's not like cooties." Or when Benjamin is saying goodbye for good to his best buddy, who follows his half-page of touching dialogue by asking if he can have some of Benjamin's Legos after he's gone. "Sure," Benjamin tells him. "But not the castle."

I still wonder if a small child would have the insight to gently prepare his parents for his own death, particularly a lingering, painful death like Benjamin's. But I believe in The Yellow Boat's ability to educate kids about AIDS while also entertaining them, and I know that, on the afternoon that I saw the new revival of the play, most of the audience (including my usually stoic theater companion) was wiping away tears.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela