In the Continuum
Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, the authors and performers of In the Continuum, explain that the goal of their play – launching a national tour at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – is to bring the reality of black women with AIDS to audiences that may know only what they hear from news reports. While people not themselves affected with HIV may believe that the illness is not something they have to worry about, In the Continuum attempts to demonstrate that AIDS is everyone's problem.
If that makes the 90-minute play sound didactic and humorless, know that Gurira and Salter have worked hard to make it both a noteworthy piece of documentary theater and a showcase for their own performing talents.
Gurira was raised in Zimbabwe, Salter in the U.S., and they met as graduate acting students at New York University. They originated their theater pieces independently – Gurira focusing on the devastation of AIDS throughout Africa and the disproportionate effect on women; Salter working from the statistic that, in 2003, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death among African-American women ages 25 to 34. Through the interweaving of these stories, the universality of the situation becomes clear.
As directed by Robert O'Hara, the performance takes place on Peter R. Feuchtwanger's understated set, with walls painted in the sun-baked yellows and dry greens of Africa and a few rough pieces of furniture. The two women wear sleek, basic black, brightened by multi-use lengths of printed cloth that, when wrapped or folded, allow the actors to differentiate their multiple roles.
Gurira is Abigail, an educated woman who works as a news reader for the state-owned Zimbabwean television network. She has a husband and a son, and she's just discovered she's pregnant again. However, she's having some other physical problems, leading to a diagnosis she never sees coming.
In contrast, Salter's main character, Nia, is a street-smart 19-year-old in South Central Los Angeles. While Nia has achieved some notice as a poet (her blend of haiku rhythm with street language is a riot), she lives very much for the moment: shoplifting her way out of jobs, hitting trendy clubs, trying to make sure she's the primary girlfriend of a promising basketball player. When life crashes in on her, she doesn't know where to turn. The women occasionally overlap their words as they tell their stories, but they never interact.
Gurira's search takes her to a male traditional healer ("I had some tourists," the healer says by way of explaining his elaborate headdress and chanting) and a sex worker, while Nia prefers the advice of her tough-talking cousin to the whining, patronizing counselor trying to make her understand that "wherever you go, there will be rules."
Following their run at Woolly Mammoth. Gurira and Salter are touring In the Continuum to major venues in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These women are speaking up for the women who can't speak for themselves, and audiences should take the time to listen.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company