A doubly rare breed, “In the Continuum” is a political drama that teaches without preaching and a heartbreaker that stirs without schmaltz. Credit for both goes to the extraordinary writer-stars, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, two recent NYU grads who decided the theater should say more about the staggering number of African and African-American women living with HIV. The resulting statement is stark, frightening and altogether engrossing.
The show’s central battle is between loneliness and belonging. Just by looking at the stage, which holds nothing but a wood-plank floor and some splintered blocks, we know this play’s inhabitants — some of whom are infected, all of whom are somehow disenfranchised — will be going it alone.
That desperation informs even the clothing. Between them, Gurira and Salter play 10 characters, but each wears the same basic attire: a sarong on Gurira’s Zimbabwean figures, a bandana on Salter’s Los Angeles natives. We know who’s talking by where the fabric is placed, but the costumes insist everyone’s fate is sewn together.
This fate is a curse for much of the story, which follows the separate yet parallel lives of Abigail (Gurira), an African newscaster, and Nia (Salter), a teen poet from South-Central L.A. The script uses a series of monologues — alternating between Africa and America — to show us how both women are essentially guaranteed to get HIV.
Never, though, does this point turn heavy-handed. In each monologue, a character speaks to someone unseen, and we’re trusted to hear the larger implications behind their conversation. It’s an excellent strategy: Most message plays simply describe their concerns with earnest rhetorical speeches, but “Continuum” dramatically embodies them.
Because of this craftsmanship, the play has a rich palette of emotions — including occasional joy — that makes its politics feel human. An attack on shoddy healthcare becomes visceral when a nurse tells Abigail the clinic has run out of condoms. And those are American values being shamed when Nia’s mother tells her pregnant daughter she can’t stay the night. “I ain’t gonna let y’all run my world forever,” Mama scolds, “One (child) down, four to go.”
The playwrights are unapologetically opinionated, and they will no doubt spark debate. But it’s a credit to their skill that they raise so many provocative questions and then refuse to answer them. Nia and Abigail’s stories are cut off at moments of crisis, and the audience must mull over their future.
It’s easy to worry about these women because they’re so richly alive. In raw, astonishing perfs, Gurira and Salter create two continents’ worth of memorable people, but it’s as the leads that they truly reveal their gifts. Faces flickering with despair, anger and hope, they show so many sides of their characters’ hearts that Nia and Abigail become both unforgettable individuals and symbols for the larger face of HIV.
“In the Continuum” resounds in that space between the unique and the universal, insisting the onstage world can quickly become our own. That may be an unsettling revelation, but it makes for unforgettable theater.