Separate Lives, Common Affliction

In response to the cheeky list "123 Reasons to Love New York Right Now" that New York magazine published on Dec. 26, Gawker.com, a media blog popular with the Google generation, published its own snarkier, hipper version. No. 81 on the Gawker list made me gasp; it read, "Because nobody uses condoms anymore." After Rent and the AIDS quilt, Magic Johnson and those ubiquitous red ribbons, has the generation weaned on sex education classes lost its collective concern about HIV and AIDS so thoroughly that we no longer care to take even the most basic sexual precaution?

Sadly, the numbers continue to paint a grim picture. Young people between 15 and 24 account for half of all new HIV infections worldwide, with more than 6,000 in this age bracket getting the disease every day. In the United States, the rate of AIDS diagnosis for African-American women is a staggering 25 times the rate for white women; HIV/AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death for African-American women between 25 and 34. And all this after more than a decade of AIDS awareness.

These are some of the facts I was compelled to seek out after seeing Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter in their two-woman play, In the Continuum. The production, minimally staged and beautifully acted, tells the story of two women, one African and one African-American, who, though they live on opposite sides of the planet, are fighting remarkably similar struggles.

Abigail, a Zimbabwean, is seemingly a success story. She is an on-air reporter for the local news station and has a young child by her equally successful and desirable husband, Stanford. Abigail knows that Stanford is cheating on her, but hopes that the child she carries will bring him back to her arms. When she goes to the crowded clinic for a checkup, Abigail is told by an unsympathetic and distracted nurse that she has the disease. What's worse, though he may beat her and send her back to her village a shamed woman, Abigail must break the news to Stanford and convince him to come in for testing.

Meanwhile, Nia, a Los Angeles teenager who is in and out of foster homes, has snuck out to a club with her best friend. She waits there for her boyfriend, Darnell, a local basketball hero, with several people hoping to ride his coattails out of the ghetto. After shots are fired at the club, Nia finds herself in a clinic, only to learn that she is pregnant with Darnell's child and HIV-positive.

From here, both Abigail and Nia must interact with the women who surround them, including a former high school friend turned sex worker and a social-climbing acquaintance for Abigail, and a painfully out-of-touch social worker and a gold-digging cousin for Nia. Each of these meetings propels Abigail and Nia closer to the play's dramatic climax: the moment of confrontation and exposure. Abigail and Nia must decide whether to face public shame and "out" the men who gave them this disease or continue to submit to the weight of secrecy.

It is then, at that moment of choosing, that the fictional wall dividing Abigail's world from Nia's breaks down and the two women momentarily acknowledge each other onstage. Their cultural particulars fall away and they know a moment of solidarity and understanding that, though strictly expressionist, represents so much of what they do not have access to. Neither woman ends up telling her secret, and in not doing so, both reveal to us how much more solidarity and understanding these characters need—from each other, from the people they know, from us.

That Gurira and Salter play every character in this 90-minute piece, often simultaneously onstage and deftly transitioning among them, is a theatrical triumph that must be seen to be believed. Watching them weave together the stories of these wildly different yet tragically similar women is akin to watching expertly trained and obviously gifted dancers, each moving independently, both moving as one.

Despite the lax attitudes that have prompted some to declare this a post-AIDS cultural moment, the numbers do not lie. And plays like In the Continuum succeed not only as art but as reminders that, in terms of this disease and its effect on specific communities, the worst of times are not behind us.

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