On the Front Lines of Ohio’s Heroin Crisis: Playwrights

Heroin-themed plays have surfaced elsewhere recently, too: at a high school in New Market, Md.; a community theater in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and a children’s theater in Roanoke, Va. And on Broadway this spring, the new play “Sweat” — which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in April — featured two characters who abuse heroin in working-class Reading, Pa.


The playwright Greg Vovos at the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Angelo Merendino for The New York Times

The author, Lynn Nottage, spent time there, doing research for the play and learning more about the opiod menace. She said similarities between the theatrical responses to the heroin and AIDS crises were striking.

“It was true of AIDS that a lot of breakthrough conversations surfaced when the AIDS crisis was put onstage,” said Ms. Nottage, who said her uncle had died of a heroin overdose. “It gave people an outlet and permitted them to sit in the theater spaces and have catharsis. I think it’s going to be true of the heroin epidemic.”

For Emelia Sherin of Warren, Ohio, it was after the eighth person from her high school died that she and a friend, Zach Manthey, 22, decided to write a play. In working-class Trumbull County, where Warren is, there were 82 overdoses, 10 of them fatal, in two weeks this year.

Onstage, “when you have someone in front of you, showing you the effect that this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Ms. Sherin, 20. “Confrontation is key to communication.”

The result is “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project,” a drama based on some 50 interviews with heroin users, counselors, family members and others that runs through Saturday at the Akron Civic Theater. The Akron area has been particularly hard hit, with the Akron Board of Education’s recently voting to stock the anti-overdose drug Narcan in middle and high schools this fall.

Ms. Sherin and Mr. Manthey’s play is a docu-theater piece — similar in style to “The Laramie Project,” about the murder of Matthew Shepard — with characters that include a Mormon convert, a drag queen and a father in Narcotics Anonymous. Heroin itself takes the stage as a female character, “like a Siren,” Mr. Manthey said.

“When I talked to current or recovering addicts, they would compare heroin to a girl or a relationship,” said Ms. Sherin, a young…

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