Agroup of Maywood teenagers are promoting abstinence and safe sex, Hollywood style. The teens wrote, filmed and starred in Burning Truth, a movie shot in and around Proviso East High School, located in the western suburb, where they all go to school. The

The storyline, the teens say, is inspired by things they’ve seen. “We just took it from reality,” said 15-year-old Delilah Johnson, who helped work the cameras. Burning Truth premiered at the popular South Side ICE Theater on June 10, and the teens%uFFFDall members of the Proviso Leyden Council for Community Action’s TeenREACH after school program%uFFFDrolled up to the red carpet in limousines provided by PLCCA.

Bishop Claude Porter, PLACCA’s founder, hopes Burning Truth will become a state sex education resource, and that at least 2,100 teens will see the film before the end of June. As for the cast and crew, they were just excited to walk the red carpet. “We had to dress to impress, because everybody and their mama was going to be there%uFFFDparents, family, neighbors, friends, the press,” said 16-year-old Tanika Hudson.

“Paparazzi,” added 17-year-old Ebonnie Jarrett with a laugh. But the making of the film was anything but glitzy. Nationally, AIDS is the leading cause of death among African American women age 25-34 and the second leading cause of death for African American men age 35-44. In Illinois, 70 percent of all females and 47 percent of all males living with HIV in 2004 were African American-even though that group accounted for just 15 percent of the state’s population.

Before the teens started filming in April, they completed a two-month training with Brothers and Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS. Scattered throughout the film is the information they learned. BASUAH is an AIDS awareness campaign sponsored by Gov. Rod Blagojevich through the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The conclusion the teens have come to: abstinence is the best option. “There’s no other way,” said Jarrett. Aaron Hannah, who plays Derrick’s best friend, Andre, agreed. “It’s 100 percent sure that you’re not gonna get any STDs,” he said. “And don’t do anything dealing with needles that will inject blood,” added Desmond Davis, who plays Derrick. Helping the kids put the film together were veteran Chicago film directors Masequa Myers and Pemon Rami, who demanded the teens’ best.

Many had dabbled in acting before, but said this was their most challenging experience by far. “It was really hard, you had to change emotions a lot,” said Shavonna Cross, 16, who plays Danielle. “The crying was hard. I have to cry when I confront Derrick about not warning me about him having HIV. I had to cry when I told my mother I had HIV.”

Hannah and Davis also had tough roles. Derrick dies of HIV, and Davis had to portray him weakening from the disease. Hannah, as Derrick’s best friend Andre, had to cry at his funeral. “It wasn’t easy just to stand there and cry,” Hannah said with a sheepish smile. “For me, I thought of somebody else’s funeral and the tears just came.”

Another thing that was tough for the young actors to get used to: having cameras and bright lights constantly in their faces. “The camera is right there, and you can’t look at it at all. You look at it, and you gotta cut and start over,” laughed Hannah, noting that one scene took 14 takes.

But the experience was once in a lifetime, the teens agree, and deals with a topic that has affected their lives. Six of the eight cast members raised their hands when asked if they knew someone with HIV. “Sexually transmitted diseases are not a game, it’s nothing to play with,” said Hannah, whose uncle is infected.

“Even if you were having sex using condoms, they’re not 100 percent effective.” The Illinois Department of Public Health sponsored the filming and production of Burning Truth.

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