Except when it screams, which only happens at a few brief instants late in its 95-minute running time, In the Continuum is a subtle, smartly staged piece on a subject that could make a great deal more screaming understandable. Which, in turn, makes the self-restraint of the work that much more admirable: Young as the artists involved are, they have the wisdom to know that screaming is no way to get an adult audience emotionally involved. And their subject is one that calls for involvement: the spread of AIDS among Africans and African Americans. HIV and its hideous effects have faded from the headlines these days, in the wake of wars and global disasters; there are other pandemics, with names that somehow seem more chic to drop, like avian flu. Even so, AIDS rolls on: Both the death toll and the new-infection rate keep mounting, and those now principally afflicted are young women of color in southern and central Africa and in African American communities like South Central Los Angeles
The link, or at least the parallel, between those two realms of young women has been made in essays and editorials but not, as far as I know, on the stage. In the Continuum, a small, bare-stage piece performed by its two authors under Robert O’Hara’s direction, makes it in an unobtrusive, cannily indirect way that reverberates all the more for not being didactic. If anything, the piece is a walking demonstration of what young women with HIV shouldn’t do, and the best thing about it is the way this reverse twist always implies its opposite: You never feel you’re being lectured on what to do about AIDS, but there’s no way not to get the message. And because of the hardheaded good sense and sharp observation that Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter have put into their writing, it all seems, tragically and comically, pretty much what a young woman who found herself diagnosed positive would do.
Abigail (played by Gurira) is a good girl, an educated young Zimbabwean who has played by the rules of the system and now expects to enjoy a Zimbabwean version of the good life, having acquired a good job (TV newscaster) and a good husband (handsome, educated, employed). Nia (played by Salter) is, in contrast, a bad girl, a troubled SoCal teen living in a halfway house, whom we first see having snuck out after curfew to go to a dance club. She, too, thinks she has snared a good husband, a high school basketball star named Darnell, currently being courted by a glittery string of colleges offering big-money scholarships. “We been together 10 months and three weeks. . . . He practically my husband.” But neither woman is feeling well, neither is in a stable world—a power outage in the Harare TV studio coincides with a shooting in the hip-hop club—and each is about to discover that her marital situation, like her health, has bleaker prospects than she can imagine.
Both women discover their HIV-positive status as a side effect to discovering something else: Both are pregnant. The mixture of the viral and the human reproductive life growing inside of them gives each character, in effect, a double story. Two things are happening to them at once, each of which provokes a different response in others, calls for different treatment, demands different social strategies, provokes different psychological dislocations in the carrier. As we start seeing their lives refracted through the eyes of those they turn to for help and advice, we also evolve a picture, whenever they themselves speak, of what they aren’t saying, of their struggle to deal with the emotional double whammy their condition has visited on them. (Salter is particularly good at conveying the complex reactions involved, Gurira at evoking the sheer terror behind the social mask.)
Abigail has to deal with a nurse, a haughty school friend back from London, another who has become a prostitute, and—final humiliation for a Westernized modern woman—a witch doctor. Nia contends with her difficult but sympathetic halfway house supervisor, with her own mother (who refuses, with devastating reasonableness, to take her in), and finally with Darnell’s mother. The authors’ refusal to make anyone else a villain, including the men responsible, gives their indirect tactics a final justification, as well as a powerfully understated climax: The absence of explicit statement, the taboo against saying certain things out loud in public, is the source of the problem; it is what allows the plague to spread and continue. It is men doing what they have always done, and women letting them, and nobody standing up to tell them the consequences, that keeps AIDS spreading. Not that it is easy to stand up and speak—the authors are eminently fair-minded. A woman in particular, in these contexts, has to be extremely brave, especially in a place like Zimbabwe, where the risks involved can include life-threatening danger as well as public humiliation, verbal abuse, and ostracism. That a work of In the Continuum‘s simplicity and delicacy can carry all this tragic weight comes, as a sort of final irony, from its spirit of playfulness: Its indirection is the product of a teasing game of guess-who-I-am; it begins—and, terrifyingly, ends—with an image of children playing.