Theater stopped misinformation during the Ebola crisis. The arts might help beat this pandemic

When she started B4 Youth Theatre in 2010, Jasmine Blanks Jones wanted to create a theater camp where Liberian youth could amplify their voices as members of their community and use theater to create change. 

Jasmine Blanks Jones working with a student at B4 Theater.
Before the need to socially isolate, Jasmine Blanks Jones worked with student artists at B4 Youth Theatre. (Image: Penn GSE)

When the Ebola virus arrived in the West African country in 2014, Blanks Jones and B4 (Burning Barriers Building Bridges) saw a chance to help stop the spread of the virus. Teaming with UNICEF in Liberia, artists from age 10 to 18 created plays that promoted good public health practices. 

Performing in public markets, these short plays about subjects like how to get a sick relative to the hospital reached more than 300,000 people. More importantly, after the performances, people in the crowd would tell the actors what they were hearing about how Ebola spread. The actors would relay these stories, which often contained misinformation or conspiracy theories, to public health officials.

These conversations revealed a gap between what officials said people should do, and what was possible in some neighborhoods. That led to changes in both messaging and public health practice. Ultimately, these changes helped save lives. 

Blanks Jones is now a doctoral student in Penn GSE’s Education, Culture, and Society program and Penn’s Africana Studies department. She is also a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar. While Blanks Jones remains B4’s Executive Director, B4’s day-to-day operations are overseen by the National Director.

As the COVID-19 virus started to spread around the world, B4 went back into action. Before the need to socially isolate, B4 youths wrote and recorded short public health films, and they are now experimenting with films shot in multiple locations. 

Now, lessons from B4’s productions during the Ebola crisis could be applied to stop the spread of misinformation in the U.S. and around the world.

Read more at Penn GSE.