Friends With Benefits 

Planned Parenthood and Emerald Theatre Company to hold fund-raisers.

Mikki Cobbins is not a party planner. She works as the community health educator for Memphis’ Planned Parenthood clinic, a job that takes her into schools, churches, and neighborhoods to talk about safe sex. But this Saturday night, Cobbins is taking her mission to the bar scene, when she hosts Rhythm & Choice at the Hi-Tone Café.

“We decided to throw a party for the younger crowd,” Cobbins says, “because that’s who we serve — the working poor and the people without insurance.” She recruited Tha Movement’s Eric Robertson to line up the music — Susan Marshall, Men-Nefer, Valencia Robinson, and DJ Lorin are slated to perform — and tapped Hi-Tone owner Bryan Powers for the space. All she needs now is a packed house willing to celebrate the power of choice and party for a good cause.

Cobbins hopes that the event will educate the public about the organization, which offers compassionate, affordable health care for millions of women worldwide. “Locally, the collapse of TennCare has really hit,” she says. “It’s impacted our city, and it proves the point of why we need to be here.

“Nationwide, Planned Parenthood focuses on a woman’s right to choose, but here in Memphis, we mostly serve women who don’t have health insurance,” she continues. “Our clinic is vital, especially to college-age women who need pap smears and regular check-ups.”

In 2004, Cobbins says, approximately 12,000 family-planning appointments were made at the Memphis clinic. The majority of these visits were for STD testing, pregnancy testing, and routine gynecological services, although Planned Parenthood also performs first-trimester abortions.

“We also do rapid HIV testing for men and women,” Cobbins says. “In 20 minutes, you can tell if you’ve been infected,” she says, adding that the test is free for teenagers.

“Saturday night, we’ll be listening to music and drinking and dancing, but we’re gonna let you know you’re here with us,” Cobbins says firmly. “We want people to leave knowing this is a Planned Parenthood benefit and that your money will go toward helping keep our doors open. There won’t be a lot of speeches, but you’ll definitely feel the theme of the night, which is helping women, supporting women, and celebrating women.”

At TheatreWorks, the Emerald Theatre Company is closing its eighth season this weekend with Out Tonight IV: The Cabaret Continues. The annual production, which serves as a benefit for the gay and lesbian theater troupe as well as a rallying point for Gay Pride Month, provides a viable outlet for Memphis’ homosexual community, according to co-artistic director Hal Harmon, who runs ETC with founder Den-Nickolas Smith.

“When Den and I started, we were in the midst of the AIDS crisis,” Harmon explains. “The only plays we were getting were AIDS-related, and once you see one of those productions, you don’t want to see it again. Staging them was ‘the kiss of death,’” he laughs. “We wanted to do the shows that had primary gay or lesbian characters, but a lot of gay and lesbian playwrights were closeted. And because Circuit Playhouse and Playhouse on the Square had first dibs on the rights to big plays, we had to seek out published works that weren’t so popular.”

Harmon and Smith forged a niche for themselves with the campy, mock-horror plays of drag legend Charles Busch, such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die Mommie Die, and Psycho Beach Party. They produced several original works and established an annual playwright competition. They also struck a chord with Doric Wilson’s Street Theater, which documents New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in gay history.

Their concept for the season-closing cabaret is twofold: First, it ensures that the theater company can cover its costs and start the next season in the black. It also allows the actors to have fun with stereotypes, glamming it up onstage for an audience that, Harmon maintains, is mainly straight.

“A large majority of our patrons are heterosexual,” he says, “although older gays and lesbians do come to the theater regularly. I’m gonna bite my tongue later, but I’ll say this anyways: If we don’t have cute boys or brief nudity in our productions, we can’t pack the house, which is sad. When we have those types of shows, we sell out!

“We definitely feel that we’re providing a voice for the community, and it’s nice to know that our core audience is supporting us,” Harmon continues. “We don’t just want people to think, Let’s go see some gays. We want them to say, ‘Let’s go see some good theater.’” 

Rhythm & Choice at the Hi-Tone 9 p.m. Saturday, June 11th; $15 with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. For more information, go to PlannedParenthood.org.

Out Tonight IV at TheatreWorks Thursday-Saturday, June 9th-11th. For show times and ticket prices, call 722-9302. For more information, go to ETCMemphisTheater.com.

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