Direction in the theater has to do with focusing the audience’s eye. Indirection, as Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter make exhilaratingly clear in their riveting two-hander, In the Continuum, has to do with focusing its attention.
An evening of intertwined soliloquies, Continuum is deceptively simple. It introduces two women—Abigail (Gurira), a working mother in Zimbabwe, and Nia (Salter), a club-hopping teenager in South Central Los Angeles—who are more or less forced by their respective environments to become strong and independent after learning they’re not just pregnant but HIV-positive. Their journeys, told with a startling degree of humor, turn out to be as similar as their cultural touchstones are different, and a lesser evening might well have been content to point this out by arraying witch doctors, expats, and extended families on one continent and social workers, Nordstrom, and welfare moms on the other.
But having placed Abigail and Nia squarely before us, the authors choose an intriguingly indirect method of illustrating their confusion, panic, acceptance, and growth. Rather than letting us gaze at them as they confront the world, this unorthodox play instead shows us the world and lets us see this African mom and African-American teen reflected in its gaze. The effect is transformative. Call it point-of-view playwriting—and note that it turns what might have been simply a pair of twinned character studies into a global social critique. It also turns a modest, sparely produced stage vehicle into a tour de force for a pair of enormously engaging young talents.
Gurira, delicately featured, with a lilt to her voice and a spring to her stride, plays not just Harare-born TV anchor Abigail but also the easily distracted nurse, pragmatic sex worker, love-potion-proffering shaman, and full-of-herself school chum who alternately pity and advise her. Seeming chameleonic as she inhabits these broadly comic folks, Gurira can also catch you up short with what she’s not saying. Shortly after being informed of her HIV status, Abigail brushes off some pestering street kids with a sharp “Where are your parents?” then blinks twice with a pained look that evokes a cityscape populated by AIDS orphans more effectively than words ever could.
Comparatively robust and ferociously assertive, Salter gives us a cockily immature Nia plotting to trap the teen athlete who fathered her baby, and then morphs into the condescending caseworker, avaricious cousin, streetwise mom, and world-weary prospective mother-in-law who berate her for her choices. Salter, too, is adept at garnering laughs while illustrating social points about the obstacles Nia faces as she negotiates her way through a culture that inflicts psychological damage on black women without so much as a backward glance.
This is, you’ll note, territory other artists have traversed, from Athol Fugard to such solo performers as Sarah Jones, Lily Tomlin, and Anna Deavere Smith, and at times In the Continuum will conjure memories of previous evenings that have functioned as a kind of social conscience for audiences. The two-handers that came out of South Africa in the ’80s use many of the same structural devices. Smith’s Fires in the Mirror applies a strictly documentary lens to a similar style of storytelling.
What’s unusual about In the Continuum is the crisscrossing of cultures. It’s not really a fusion so much as an interlacing of lives and events. Abigail and Nia never leave their respective continents or intrude on each other’s stories, though they frequently share the stage as the incidents in their lives mesh—a gunshot, say, in Nia’s world marking a power outage in Abigail’s. Robert O’Hara’s staging is inventive and evocatively spare, with little more than a couple of stools and a few minor props (bones cast by a witch doctor, papers on a clipboard, purses) to assist the performers in creating varied environments on the neutral ground that set designer Peter R. Feuchtwanger has provided. Equally striking in their simplicity are Sarah Hillard’s minimalist costumes—black tank tops and slacks accessorized with bright patterned scarves that, when wrapped around heads, hips, breasts, or torsos, effectively delineate a whole raft of characters.
I don’t want to make too-extravagant claims for In the Continuum, which begins a national tour at Woolly Mammoth after engagements in both New York and Harare. The focus drifts a bit toward the end, and at times the evening feels as much a collection of engrossing incidents as a play. Still, if it’s a specialized evening, it’s a gracefully produced, gorgeously performed one—a vivid showcase for a pair of emerging talents.CP