To HIV and HIV Not: In the Continuum is a drama with a message. But that doesn't necessarily make it good

Worlds apart, two women — one a responsible wife and mother in Zimbabwe, the other a frivolous teen in Los Angeles — are diagnosed as HIV-positive. In the Continuum, the one-act, two-actress, multiple-character play at the Black Rep, seeks to draw attention to both the immense cultural differences and the stark parallels faced by women whose lives are broadsided by the sudden threat of death. Different though they may be, Abigail and Nia are embraced by an ever-widening circle of fear and alienation.

"Your mommy, your daddy, your whole generation got HIV," is almost a mantra for the worlds in which these two disparate women live. Written (and first performed) by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, who met a few years ago when they were students at New York University, In the Continuum reflects a young generation that has never not known the plague of AIDS. Indeed, one of the most startling moments occurs when Abigail, a news reader at the government broadcast service in Zimbabwe, learns that she has tested positive. She is informed of her condition by an overworked nurse who simply does not have the time to care. The point is made: Though it will of course always be stunning to learn that life as you know it is no more, the newness of such revelations is over.

Marylynn Gwatiringa and Sharisa Whatley's characters share an epidemic's grim realities.
Stewart Goldstein
Marylynn Gwatiringa and Sharisa Whatley's characters share an epidemic's grim realities.

Abigail and Nia both were infected by the men in their lives — Abigail by her husband, Nia by her boyfriend, a rising college basketball star — and both women must remain dependent on their infectors. But as mature and responsible as Abigail is, that's how shallow Nia behaves. The product of foster homes, she now carries a purse with an iconic photo of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, as if the handheld association will rub off a little gloss. (Judging from Nia's gutter mouth, Audrey's élan has yet to take hold.) After the two protagonists are established, the script introduces numerous ancillary roles, ranging from relatives to witch doctors. By the end of the 75-minute sprint, we're even spoon-fed a simple moral: Use a condom.

When it premiered in New York City in 2005, In the Continuum was received with generous critical acclaim. Critics love to take credit for discovering new talent, even when it's still in a raw and formative stage. Perhaps the fact that the original off-Broadway production was acted by its two young authors helped to present the play to its best advantage. (Not to suggest a lack of ability on the part of the two actresses at the Black Rep. Marylynn Melissa Gwatiringa, who portrays the Zimbabwan Abigail, was born and raised in Zimbabwe. Nia is performed by Sharisa Whatley, who scored a personal triumph last season in the title role of the Black Rep's Sarafina!) But watching the show here, it's hard to fathom what enthused the New York reviewers.

"You think this is a video game?" someone angrily asks Nia, in one of the evening's many harangues. "This is life." But the script doesn't feel like life. On the contrary: In the Continuum resembles an extended acting class. Despite the profound seriousness of its theme, the story being told here is primarily about hats and wigs. Director Lorna Littleway seems to be more interested in showcasing her two actresses' variety than in pursuing any kind of emotional truth. Despite all the empty flash, there's little for a viewer to cling to. Instead we get monologues and half-conversations with other characters who are not onstage — which is almost always a fail-proof recipe for calling attention to the acting rather than allowing it to simply happen.

The only truly empathetic moment came during the pre-show remarks from director of development Peter Franzen, who made a simple yet compelling case for why audiences should continue to support theater during these lean times. Indeed we should. Alas, the persuasion of his words was undone by the play that followed.

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