Attending “In the Continuum” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater is the best thing you can do to treat yourself to a night of theater while exposing yourself to a realistic, yet gentle, depiction of contemporary women suffering from HIV/AIDS. The play follows two women, one living in Zimbabwe (Danai Gurira), and another in LA (Nikkole Salter), as they react to having been diagnosed HIV positive. The juxtaposition of the two environments illuminates what a global epidemic the disease is, as well as how universal the emotions of fear, shame and isolation are for people with HIV/AIDS.
While watching the two actresses perform brilliantly in a high-energy piece for nearly two hours, it is amazing to believe that they were also the creative minds behind the play. When Salter and Gurira were in graduate school at New York University, they decided to work together on a collaborative project. In February 2004, “In the Continuum” was born and by 2005, the play had become an off-Broadway sensation.
“In the Continuum” is essentially the merging of two one-woman shows, and both actresses play five to six characters each. One of the best features of the play is the diversity in characters, and the actresses’ transition from character to character is seamless. The two main characters’ storylines fit together like a puzzle as the audience alternately watches a mother from Zimbabwe, Abigail, and a black teenager from LA, Nia, cope with the news of their diagnosis.
The actresses play a range of characters (friend, mother, social worker, nurse, etc.) so the audience can understand the different responses communities have toward people who are HIV positive. In Zimbabwe, Abigail is just another victim, yet her predicament is still controversial since she was a self-made woman who had worked hard to rise above the common economic and social restrictions. She must also suffer the humiliation of her community knowing that her husband had been unfaithful to her and then passed on the disease. By contracting HIV, Abigail feels reduced to being just another number in the statistic of fallen African women.
In LA, the stereotype of HIV/AIDS as a disease exclusive to homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes persists in the minds of Nia’s community, and affects how it judges others. Nia was a girl from an underprivileged background, but she had been given special opportunities by social workers because she had “potential.” The audience watches Nia despair that she has reached a point where destiny has truly cheated her in life. Instead of having a preachy tone, Nia’s monologue transcends into poetry. And then, heartbreakingly, Salter, as Nia’s friend, says, “We’re already living in Hell. You don’t want to spend eternity there, too.”
The approach to the set and costume design is done in a minimalist way, which further compels the audience to use their imagination when watching the two actresses switch from one character to the next. The language Gurira and Salter use is authentic and honest, and every one of their characters is believable and relatable. To watch the actresses achieve this effect is what gives the play’s challenging material its power.
Rebecca Mansbach, a junior majoring in Public Health said, “I enjoyed the play because, though it dealt with such a serious topic, the play was informative, captivating and even funny.” She also commented that she’s learned a great deal about HIV/AIDS in her classes, and she thinks seeing a play like “In the Continuum” is important for people’s understanding and awareness.
Seeing the play may not be equivalent to actively campaigning for better AIDS research, but, this play will open your eyes to the necessity of remembering that although HIV/AIDS has grown to worldwide epidemic proportions, we cannot forget the humanity of the people afflicted with the disease. n
In the Continuum will be at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., until September 24. Student tickets are $10 and can be ordered from the theater’s website, www.woollymammoth.org.