“In order to teach, you have to learn,” writer and performer Conscious said about her one-woman show “Getting Unstuck. ”
If the maxim is true, audiences are in for a master course in overcoming adversity.
Conscious, whose real name is Merle Soden, adapted her one-woman show from her book “Getting Unstuck: Girl to Girl, You Can Be Infected Indeed.” Both the book and the show take readers and audiences alike on Conscious’ journey of self-discovery, told through conversations between her and her therapist at a drug-rehabilitation center in upstate New York. Conscious talks about a past that included issues of repressed memories, sexual abuse, homelessness, drug abuse and contracting HIV from a woman.
Conscious, who currently calls Miami home and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, has worked as a bodyguard at famous New York nightclubs such as The Palladium, The Tunnel and The Limelight, as well as for celebrities Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, DMX, Jay-Z and Aaliyah. She then went on to work in television as music manager for “The Queen Latifah Show” and hosted Oxygen Media’s talk show “She-Commerce.”
Conscious said she was encouraged to write “Getting Unstuck” while she was working on a TV show with hip-hop royalty.
“When I first went to Queen Latifah about this story, I had a one-page synopsis and, first we cried together about this story,” she said. “After that, she had said to me, ‘I want to put you with a woman named Karen Hunter.’ Karen helped me to flesh out the story. It was so difficult because there were parts she kept making me rewrite. The editing process is tremendous on a person’s heart because you have to keep pouring out your heart and fixing a section so it is legible for people. Even after she helped me with that process, [publishers] still didn’t want to pick me up as an author. Ultimately, what I did was take the project on myself. I self-published it. That became another process — a labor of love.”
Conscious said it didn’t take long for the book, released in 2002, to reach an international audience.
“One of the things I teach in the play is, when you teach, you learn,” she said. “Your life is a classroom. When you teach other people what you have learned, most likely it’s not only helping them but it’s helping you. That’s what they teach you when you go to a therapeutic community. When you sit in those groups and you talk about the things that happen to you in your life, nine out of 10 times, it has happened to somebody else. But it’s good hearing that you are not alone. That’s what they taught me in the program. So I made a promise that once I got all my information together, I’d put it in a book. Let’s see if it really will help other people. And it got picked up in Amsterdam, the United Kingdom, Germany, The United States and Australia. It really touched a lot of people. I’m on the right track. I’m onto something good.”
To bring her message to a wider audience, Conscious, with the backing and help of her brother Troy Carter (who is Lady Gaga’s manager), launched “Getting Unstuck” as a one-woman multimedia show that uses popular music to set the tone for each part of the monologue.
“He has backed this project from day one,” Conscious said of Carter’s involvement. “He is super-proud of the project.”
She added that she talks about the realities of HIV/AIDS in her show in a way that otherwise might not fall on less-than-receptive ears.
“No one has ever explained HIV infection the way I explain it in that stage. The way I make analogies between infection and a container of sugar, Kool-Aid and water, they get it. Certain analogies between ordinary things that we think of on a layman’s level, they say, ‘Oh, that’s the concentration of the virus in your body?’ I don’t think it’s ever been broken down like that. What happens is when people sit down at these huge symposiums at these HIV/AIDS events where these doctors go deep into medical terms, they lose the audience. I have sat in many of them over the years. Ordinary people don’t know what the hell those medical terms mean. In my play, I break it down and make the connection between the concentration of the virus and things that are in their kitchen. It’s like a bottle of water and sugar: putting a 5-pound bag of sugar in a container of water, shaking it up and still seeing the high concentration of sugar and making that connection to the high concentration of virus in your blood. It’s not that the audience is stupid. My average audience member comes from a demographic where they make anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. And they’re educated. But they just don’t get it when the educators go over their heads with these terms.”
While the message at the core of “Getting Unstuck” is for everyone, Conscious believes the play drives it home for women not as well-addressed on the subject of HIV/AIDS as other groups.
“We know that a high concentration of African-American women are being infected at a higher rate than other women,” Conscious said. “So they are addressing that. I can’t say they aren’t addressing women as much as men. I wouldn’t say a bold statement like that. Now lesbian women, that’s a different story. There is resistance amongst women who sleep with women because there are women who sleep with women who do not identify as being lesbians. There are plenty of men who sleep with men and by no means want to be associated with the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay.’ Getting back to the women, they don’t feel like they are at risk. They don’t understand how they can be infected. They don’t understand that it’s not what sex you are, it’s the act of sex. There’s a big difference. That’s what they’re missing. I make it very clear in the play. It’s fun.”
“Fun” isn’t the first description that comes to mind when the play’s subject matter is described to potential audience member,s but Conscious said she wants to bring smiles to the audience and herself with her show.
“People love theater,” she said. “They love the entertainment of the theater. So why not bring it to the theater? It’s teaching while we’re in that theater. Oh, they’re going to be entertained, but they are going to learn something while they are there. You have to change with the times. I can’t sit up there and tell a story without a laugh. I’ve got to smile because my life has been good. I have been blessed to be able to go from homelessness to Hollywood. That’s something to smile about these days. I’m healthy. I look just like the picture on my website and I’ve looked that from the day that I found out. It’s not a sad situation.”
Conscious indeed has a lot to smile about these days as she balances her performances with her studies.
“I’m graduating with my electrical engineering degree,” she said. “So I’m not doing any work in television right now. My graduation is Aug. 13. So once I graduate, I’ll see what I’ll be doing.”
Conscious performs “Getting Unstuck” at 7 p.m. at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For more information, visit www.prettytomboys.com or call 215-985-0420.