Blaming and shaming

A new play looks at public health pariahs

By Holly Henschen in Isthmus, October 25, 2017

In a very Madison course of events, playwright Danielle Dresden found an authority on the subject of her latest work within city limits.

“I happened to be writing this play that involved Typhoid Mary, and a world-renowned expert on Typhoid Mary lives in this city. And not only that, she is open enough to answer an email from a complete stranger and meet to have coffee,” says Dresden, the author of nearly 35 plays and the co-founder with Donna Peckett of TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater.

The expert Dresden tracked down literally wrote the book on the topic — Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, published in 1996 and now in its 10th edition. Judith Leavitt is a professor emerita at UW-Madison where she taught the history of public and women’s health in the U.S. for more than 30 years.

Typhoid Mary, Patient Zero… and the M Factor, opening Oct. 5 at TAPIT, juxtaposes stories of public health pariahs, including Typhoid Mary Mallon (Liz Light), a carrier of the deadly disease in early 20th-century New York, and Patient Zero (Joshua Paffel). Patient Zero was the name given to Gaëtan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant and HIV patient who was incorrectly blamed for the AIDS outbreak that swept the United States in the 1980s.

“Historically, the people we blame for those kinds of things are immigrants, African Americans and other marginalized groups,” says Leavitt. “We have to learn that pointing the finger of blame is maybe not the best way to proceed.”

Mallon, an unmarried Irish immigrant cook, was quarantined for most of her life after being identified as the source of several typhoid outbreaks in New York City. Dugas was vilified for his promiscuous behavior in Randy Shilts’ 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.

In Dresden’s play, a plague breaks out in a mid-sized city within a group of grad students. It soon spreads to a mosque. Contemporary characters work to decipher the nature of the disease and its transmission as they encounter political and personal struggles. The play jumps back and forth in time between the modern day and the eras of the titular characters.

“My ongoing interest is exploring the interaction between individuals and the times in which they live and how much one changes the other,” Dresden says. “How much are individuals shaped by time, how much do individuals change their time?”

Leavitt says the world is still facing major public health issues, so understanding our history is critical: “The more we can understand about what happened in the past and why they thought about it the way we did, our responses today will be more informed and wiser for it.”

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