Theater Scene In Ohio Impacted By Opioid Epidemic

By Keri Blakinger 08/07/17

Ohio playwrights are sparking conversations with the exploration of opioid addiction in their creative works. 

audience watching a stage play

For Emelia Sherin, it was the eighth death that did it. The Ohio native lives in a rural, working-class county that saw 82 overdoses - 10 fatal - in two weeks this year. And one too many of those hit close to home. 

Her high school friends were dying, with a disturbing regularity, it seemed. So the 20-year-old Warren resident took to the stage. She teamed up with a friend, Zach Manthey, and interviewed 50-plus users, counselors, and family to put together a play: (In)dependent: The Heroin Project.

The docu-theater’s motley cast of characters includes a drag queen, a 12-stepping dad, a Mormon convert, and even heroin itself - a female personification of the deadly drug.

“When I talked to current or recovering addicts, they would compare heroin to a girl or a relationship,” Sherin told the New York Times. “They would always refer to her as her. I asked them, ‘Why do you keep saying her?’ And they say would say, ‘Because she’s so beautiful.’”

But Sherin’s not the only Ohioan who’s turning a national tragedy into moving theater. A one-man show dubbed How to Be a Respectable Junkie debuted at the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights, with a person in recovery for heroin addiction at the helm. Greg Vovos, 45, has penned two other dope-centric plays. 

In total, at least five heroin-themed plays hit the stage last year in the northeast corner of the state alone, a phenomenon that’s prompting some to see parallels to the HIV-inspired dramas of a past generation.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, the Brooklyn-based scribe behind Sweat, sees that as a positive.

“It was true of AIDS that a lot of breakthrough conversations surfaced when the AIDS crisis was put onstage,” she told the Times. “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.”

Ohio has been particularly hard-hit by the opioid crisis with more than 4,100 overdose deaths in 2016, an increase of 36% over the year before. 

“In the Rust Belt, it’s a situation where everybody’s heard about it and everybody knows it’s a crisis,” said Dobama Theater artistic director Nathan Motta. “Everybody is one or two people from somebody who is suffering.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.