A dozen years ago, a play by and featuring New York University students and aspiring actresses Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira, “In the Continuum,” an intense and engrossing tale of women living with the HIV virus, was just a classroom project. An acclaimed staging of the work led to an Off-Broadway run and a subsequent national tour.
Still in demand worldwide, “In the Continuum” is a series of “revelations, parallel denials and self-discoveries,” say program notes, told in monologue format, spoken across continents amid different cultural perspectives and circumstances, mostly involving Abigail, a married Zimbabwe mother with a child, and Nia, working and single, a young woman from Los Angeles just now dating a hot basketball prospect. Abigail and Nia have never met, of course.
But, their newly discovered plight - each diagnosed with HIV - provides global connectivity for this frightening and heartbreaking story of two black women with diverse lives suddenly placed on hold, dreams doused and futures deferred. Salter and Gurira have written about a sad sisterhood across the seas.
The HIV scourge may not grab headlines anymore but don’t be fooled. Statistics still startle: 36.7 million people throughout the world are living with HIV/AIDS, with 1.2 million in the U.S. New medications help prevent HIV passage to newborns but millions of children - in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly - are ill with the virus. 35 million people have died from HIV over the decades; unknown numbers are infected but don’t know it.
“In the Continuum” is currently on stage at The Paul Robeson Theatre, now in its 48th season, directed by Paulette Harris and starring a pair of marvelous talents, Ayana Williams as Abigail, and Christina Foster, as Nia. Abigail, solid, a budding television personality in Zimbabwe, tells us of her life - promising job, nice house, a son, a husband who she says will change his partying ways - in a pleasant, rhythmic lilt until she learns, simultaneously, of pregnancy and HIV; her partner’s carousing comes home to roost.
Nia, potty-mouthed and a poster girl for risk-taking and bad judgement, also learns of her own double whammy, pregnancy and HIV, Darnell, the bed-hopping cager, the deliverer of both. Nia, a fledgling poetess - she recites a rap-inspired, heart-wrenching piece in late play that provides some of the night’s most powerful minutes - and there are many such times. These common Abigail-Nia decisions, their shame, vulnerability and victimization, their suffering-in-silence and what-now? moments are all nightmarish.
Actress Williams, detailed, all in, is perfect; the energy-filled Foster is animated, sassy but ultimately wise. Both actresses play many roles - a salty cousin, Nia’s unsympathetic mother, a school chum, a job coach, a witch doctor; busy and believable.
“In the Continuum” is long, a few monologues too many, perhaps. But, it’s complex and serious - surprisingly, there are some light moments - and director Harris, patient and astute, wisely lets it talk itself out. For a homework assignment, pretty darn good.
“In the Continuum”
3 stars (out of four)
Drama at The Paul Robeson Theatre, inside The African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. Through Apr.2. For tickets & information, 884-2013 or go to www.aaccbuffalo.org. Tickets: $25 general admission; seniors & students w/ID, $22.