Nikkole Salterand Danai Gurira in In the Continuum
(Photo © James Leynse)
Nikkole Salterand Danai Gurira in In the Continuum
(Photo © James Leynse)
While plays dealing with AIDS abound, it's still rare for such stories to be told from the vantage point of African and African-American women. Written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, In the Continuum is a thought-provoking, entertaining, and ultimately disturbing piece that attempts to shed light on the ways in which the epidemic impacts these populations.

The play is structured as two intertwining narratives. The first is set in Zimbabwe and is enacted by Gurira. It centers around Abigail, a newscaster for a government-supported television network, who is excited to find out that she is expecting her second child -- until she discovers that she has also been diagnosed as HIV-positive. The second narrative, performed by Salter, is set in Los Angeles and concerns Nia, a 19-year-old girl who also learns that she is both pregnant and HIV-positive.

Each writer/performer plays multiple roles within the context of her own narrative. In addition to Abigail, Gurira portrays a witch doctor, a sex worker, a nurse, a maid, and a former classmate. She has a comic expressiveness that helps to bring several of her characters to life but she is not as strong in the more dramatic sections of the piece. For example, a scene in which she contemplates telling her family of her diagnosis seems overwrought.

Salter excels in creating strong women with an attitude; while there is some amount of similarity in all of her characters, she manages to make each one distinguishable from the others. Nia's tendency towards delinquency masks an insecurity that bubbles to the surface in a heartbreaking scene in which she weighs her options while speaking to her unborn child. Salter also plays Nia's mother, who counts the days until all of her children are old enough to leave the house; Nia's social worker, who tries to be understanding but is wrapped up in her own personal concerns; cousin Keysha, who offers Nia some rather mercenary advice; and the mother of Nia's boyfriend, who attempts to buy Nia's silence in regard to her son's own HIV status so as not to ruin his chances at a career in professional sports.

Director Robert O'Hara has chosen a few key moments at which to bring the two performers face to face or, at least, into the same theatrical space. This effectively demonstrates how both stories exist within the same world, despite the differences in geography and cultural background. The show is well-paced throughout, and Jim French's lighting helps ease the transitions between the L.A. and Zimbabwe scenes.

In the Continuum has an unapologetically activist component, but while it skirts the edge of didacticism, it contains enough humor and heartfelt drama so as not to seem merely agitprop. Gurira and Salter have attempted to provide multiple perspectives on the issue of AIDS amongst black women in both Africa and America, rather than depicting the two central characters merely as victims, yet the ending of the play is troubling because it seemingly leaves both women disempowered. The goal may simply have been to expose the patterns of behavior and societal expectations that contribute to the perpetuation of the AIDS epidemic. While it would be too much to expect a happy ending, some sense of resolution -- or even hope -- could make the piece stronger and its messages clearer.