Trying to identify every artistic work about HIV/AIDS is like trying to name every single snowflake in a blizzard; they’re just too numerous. But each one paints a unique picture of those afflicted with the fatal disease that has become an epidemic. Noteworthy examples include “Philadelphia,” “Rent,” “A Mother’s Prayer” and “Angels in America.” Still, amidst such heavyweights, the critically acclaimed play “In The Continuum” finds a niche all its own.
Currently at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the 90-minute play continues its international tour, with past stops including Los Angeles, Zimbabwe and Edinburgh. Written and performed by Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira, the play tells the stories of two pregnant women who are both diagnosed HIV-positive and their reactions to the diagnosis. Living in the precariousness of South Central Los Angeles, Nia (Salter) is a sassy, rebellious teenager whose hopes of wealth and fame are pinned on marrying her adulterous basketball star boyfriend. Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Zimbabwe, Abigail (Gurira) is a middle class news reporter with a family and a dream to emigrate to the West and work at CNN. Tragically, these goals drift into the distance as they must ponder their lives with HIV/AIDS — particularly their relationships to the significant others who knowingly infected them.
Although the situation itself is obviously despondent, the attitudes of the play’s characters manage to be amusing, witty and at times completely facetious. Salter and Gurira’s performances are the reason why “In The Continuum” received rave reviews by The New York Times, playing all the characters of the play with incredible spirit and energy.
Nia’s and Abigail’s tales harmonize, digress and harmonize again, with the scenes of both presented in a tag team fashion. Their ability to pass the ball metaphorically between one another without depreciating either story is comforting, even if these transitions feel convoluted and frustrating at times.
Furthermore, the format of the play requires the audience to laboriously imagine at least half of the script on its own. Each scene consists of Salter or Gurira conversing with some pretended character, and therefore the imagined character’s dialogue can only be induced from that of the actor on stage.
The scarcity of physical action limits the technical features of the show; so don’t expect any pizzazz. The set (Peter R. Feuchtwanger) of the play is minimal, as are the costumes (Sarah Hilliard). Salter and Gurira only require a few stools and crates to sit on as they monologue to the audience. The ladies appear in casual black to denote their main characters and adjust hairdos or implement props to introduce new characters.
The lights (Colin D. Young) are focused on our subjects while leaving the rest of the stage shadowy except for a few instances of backdrop lighting. Underlying many of the scenes are predictable sound effects (Lindsay Jones) to convey setting (e.g. loud cheers and floor squeaks=basketball game).
What is so striking about this play is that it looks outwardly onto a world through the eyes of the main characters rather than merely watching them wallow in their suffering. The audience doesn’t see the post-clinic Nia or Abigail, until the end of the play, but they do see the counselor, hooker and cousin who continue socializing naturally with them. The other characters’ ignorance to the circumstances only reinforces the severity of the deathtrap in which the women find themselves; to divulge is to be condemned by the outside world, to bury the truth is to destroy one’s own self.
These women have chosen the latter path, their course of action being to laugh it all off and continue their former lives while a secret brews beneath. But when the time comes, who will bear the blame for their confession and subsequent demise, themselves or that world that fears them?