Sunday, September 28, 2008

The most powerful show of the year

Yes, I know proclamations like the one above tend to stir my readers up (remember the flak I got for my praise of Streamers?); but there simply is no other way to describe Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter's In the Continuum (at left, photo by Craig Bailey), being presented by Up You Mighty Race at the BCA Black Box through October 18. And this time I have the politics on my side - Continuum isn't some white-boy fever dream (like Streamers), but rather a harrowing look at a subject which, shockingly enough, has never been treated onstage by our larger theatre companies: the plight of HIV+ women of color.

Now I can already feel you backing away with a sympathetic smile - do you really want to spend an evening listening to a sermon with which you already agree? I understand that reaction, but rest assured this is no simple-minded polemic; it is instead a genuinely gripping piece of political theatre, hell, it's a gripping piece of theatre, period. Continuum is, yes, politically correct, and politically direct - but are those necessarily flaws? Playwrights (and original performers) Gurira and Salter may be baldly political, but they're never blunt, and they never operate in bad faith; we never feel ourselves being dishonestly manipulated into sympathy with the play's victims - indeed, this play is utterly unsentimental, and also often utterly funny, believe it or not.

All of which is due to the fact that Continuum is a very richly designed text. This loud, profane brocade follows two women - a married news reader, Abigail, in Zimbabwe, and a party girl, Nia, living large in South Central - as they come to grips with an unexpected double diagnosis: both are pregnant, and both have HIV. They have been infected by partners who were operating promiscuously on what we now call "the down low" (the play never makes it explicit how they were infected, but implies it was through heterosexual sex).

The play limns this terrible situation with sympathy, but also with unexpected irony. Abigail is a self-consciously "Westernized" professional (other friends have gone off to the London School of Economics), but her career is embedded in a secure home life shared with her young son and Stamford, the high-powered husband she loves; she practically shines with the confidence of successful people who have, in fact, earned their success and imagine it's some kind of vaccine against bad luck. Nia, for her part, is already adrift; she lives in some kind of foster care, has just lost her job at Nordstrom's because she was fond of "five-finger discounts," and dreams mostly of wine, weed, and Darnell, the high school basketball star whom she imagines is her ticket out of squalor.

Needless to say, Stamford and Darnell not only have their secrets, but also all the power in these relationships, as Abigail and Nia realize once their HIV status sinks in. Abigail faces being beaten and disowned (and may even lose her children) if her infection becomes known; Nia's plight is less dangerous, but still pretty desperate - she discovers her only hope of survival may lie in keeping quiet about Darnell, and manipulating him into a paternity suit once he makes it into the NBA. The scenarios here are unrelentingly grim, but also, let's be honest, they're simply accurate - and remind us with a shock how false so much uplifting, "empowering" theatre really is. If you imagine Abigail or Nia is going to suddenly triumph in the final scene, and belt out an Aretha Franklin hit - well, think again. And if you think all this sounds like simply a screed against the black patriarchy, well, at some level it is (the brothers deserve this, and worse), except for the fact that the authors never let women themselves out of their sights: Abigail and Nia find no solidarity with their female friends and colleagues, and not even with their mothers; indeed, it's often shocking how much misogyny comes out of the sisters in this play.

But all the thoughtful writing in the world can't ignite this kind of theatre without powerful performances; luckily, Up You Mighty Race has two of the strongest performers in town in Lindsey McWhorter and Ramona Lisa Alexander, who sometimes seem almost locked in an unspoken duel as to who will prove more virtuosic. Alexander, who has already won an IRNE, is well-known on the fringe (she's just been little seen recently while studying at Brandeis); the good news is that McWhorter (also from Brandeis, but already on her way to New York) is her talented match. McWhorter has the body of a dancer, but the soul of an actress, and as Abigail, both her poise and accent are impeccable - she's also able to access the most intense emotions while remaining completely in control and in character (her monologue about the possible deaths she faces from AIDS - done while hiding from her son's ongoing birthday party - all but brought me to tears). Alexander meanwhile continues her winning streak with a Nia who may be loud, sassy and self-indulgent, but is also obviously damaged, and still smart and warm enough to be likable despite her sloppy ways. Alexander is actually even more piercing as Nia's friends and neighbors; her evocation of Darnell's mother, who is well aware of her son's HIV status, is superb in its delicacy, and her take on Nia's drag-queen cousin is likewise startlingly well observed. (If you thought a woman could never suggest the gay man lurking beneath the surface of drag, well think again - Alexander pulls it off.)

I did have a few problems with the production. McWhorter and Alexander sometimes seem to be dueling not just terms of talent but also in terms of simple lung power (the Black Box is a small room, ladies). And director Akiba Abaka, who has in general given a strong, lucid shape to all the cross-cutting between L.A. and Africa, sometimes indulges herself in dance-like moves that aren't all that inspired, and at times even a little confusing. But these are forgettable flaws in a show that by its climax has become all but devastating. I guarantee you will not see a more powerful performance this season.

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