one in two

And other recent theatre experiences by Don Shewey

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Don Shewey
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For a three-actor one-set 85-minute no-intermission play, there’s A LOT going on in Donja R. Love’s one in two, which just opened in a production by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Theater.

It’s part of the single most exciting development in contemporary American theater, the explosion of productions by playwrights of color who are not only telling stories we otherwise wouldn’t be hearing but conveying them in convention-smashing, formally inventive ways that are reconfiguring our fundamental ideas of what theater can be. As a 60-something white cismale theater maven, I love watching the trickle of once-a-generation innovators like Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Young Jean Lee turn into a torrent of fiercely talented, jaggedly individual poets of time-space-language (Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleasha Harris, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, to name just a few of an emerging fertile crop). Donja R. Love belongs to a subset of that group, the tribe portraying queer black male experience with tremendous courage, humor, and sexual honesty (cf. Robert O’Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael R. Jackson). Even within that group, Love steers into a much smaller subset of writers dealing with the ongoing impact of HIV on black gay lives; most of the others that come to my mind (Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint) were swept away at the height of the epidemic.

The title refers to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 that chillingly asserts that “one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.” (By comparison, the stats are one in eleven for white gay or bisexual men, one in four for gay or bisexual Latino men.) Numbers figure heavily in the play. When the audience enters, the three actors sit silently on the austere white set (by Anulfo Maldonado) under screens racking up numbers at an alarming rate. When the play starts, their first action is to “take a number” like from a deli counter, and then they engage the audience in an applause-o-meter process of deciding which of them will play characters #1, #2, and #3. Jacobs-Jenkins used a similar ploy with his play Everybody, in which certain roles were assigned by lottery, but after seeing one in two it’s even more mind-boggling to realize that all three actors have the entire script memorized and are ready to play any of the characters at a moment’s notice.

The main character, #1, has a name (Donté), while the other two actors play all the people he encounters on his journey from HIV diagnosis through all the hurdles of denial, depression, telling your family, getting treatment, joining a support group, contemplating suicide, negotiating hook-ups, the solace of substances. These fleetly morphing scenes are skillfully staged by Stevie Walker-Webb with minimal props and Cha See’s evocative, precise lighting. At the performance I saw, chubby, dark-skinned Edward Mawere played #1, while willowy, light-skinned Jamyl Dobson was #2 and buff, scruffy Leland Fowler was #3. All three were excellent, brave, and beyond vanity. One provocative aspect of the show is contemplating how different certain scenes might have looked if the roles were switched around.

A statement by the playwright, handed out with the program as the audience leaves, reveals to what extent the play is autobiographical and how much speaks for the community of his peers. Because like the earliest AIDS plays (I’m thinking of William M. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart),  one in two functions as potentially life-saving community education. It’s easy to be blasé about HIV these days. I mean, everyone knows it’s evolved into a manageable chronic disease, treatable like diabetes, right? And everyone knows that there’s this miraculous new drug regimen called PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) that pretty much guarantees you will never contract HIV, right? Well…not so fast. Not everybody has the same access to information, resources, community support, and internal wherewithal.

Watching the play I was haunted by a disturbing op-ed piece by a young black gay writer named Daryl Hannah that ran in the New York Times with the headline “Why Anti-HIV Medicine Isn’t For Me.” Much as I wanted to argue with him, I couldn’t contest his personal feeling of isolation from a community of peers with whom he could sort out his anxieties and hesitations, any more than I could dispute the widespread suspicion the black Americans have toward doctors and Western medicine, given the Tuskegee syphilis trials and other hideous historical abuses. (And not just black Americans. Hannah’s op-ed piece appeared the same week that the supernaturally gifted theater composer Michael Friedman died of AIDS at age 41. You would think such a death would be preventable in this day and age…and yet I just heard another sad story of a 32-year-old suicide, too isolated and too scared to share his HIV status with his family. )

One in two doesn’t traffic in preachiness or Pollyanna attitudes. It lays out messy scenes from Donté’s dilemma in the manner of Brechtian lehrstücke (learning-plays). I can imagine a peer-group discussion minutely dissecting the scene in which Donté fumbles his way through questions about disclosure and condom use with a Grindr hookup who calls himself Trade Hung Like Horse Underscore 99 (one of many hilariously meta touches in the play).

The playwright impressively omits easy conclusions. As soon as I saw the set, I noticed there were no exits onstage. Besides referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, Maldonado’s set also reminded me of Adrian Piper’s stark-white installation What It’s Like, What It Is #3, with its evocation of prison surveillance panopticons. And the play doesn’t wrap things up with a tidy ending because, guess what, the story of HIV isn’t over.

Other Culture Vulture expeditions in brief: among the seven other shows I saw in the last two weeks, the only one that really left me cold was 32 rue Vandenbranden by the Flemish company Peeping Tom at the BAM Next Wave Festival, an acting-school exercise in competing for attention onstage. I didn’t love Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical on Broadway I had such high hopes for (mainly out of admiration for book writer Diablo Cody), though I completely dug Lauren Patten’s understated performance as teenage lesbian Jo, whose literally show-stopping rendition of “You Oughta Know” has Tony Award written all over it. (Director Diane Paulus engineered that for Andrea Martin in her staging of Pippin.) Oskar Eustis’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day at the Public Theater is as clunky and unsatisfying as the original was, but Crystal Lucas-Perry is dazzling as Zillah, and Jonathan Hadary as Xillah speaks not just for the playwright but for the audience when he delivers the raw cry, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I very much admired Thomas Ostermeier’s well-acted production of History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse, my introduction to hotshot young French literary star Edouard Louis. I loved seeing the multimedia spectacle Come Through at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, a strange and sublime collaboration between the St. Paul-based company TU Dance and adventurous experimental rocker Justin Vernon, whose band Bon Iver shared the stage performing a mixture of songs from their latest album and odd numbers written just for this piece. I also loved Stephen Adly Guirgis’s rambling, raggedy Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, with its crazy, beautiful, harrowing, poignant scenes of life in a Harlem women’s shelter and a gigantic ensemble of amazing actors, including LAByrinth Theater Company superstar Liza Colón-Zayas, who I think is one of the finest actors onstage today.

Best of all was Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience. I’m one of the dinosaurs who can boast of having seen the legendary original 1977 production at the American Place Theatre, directed by Fornes herself, most memorable of course for its unprecedented middle section, which shuffled the audience through four scenes taking place simultaneously in different areas of the theater. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Blain-Cruz’s production, though, is better in every way. Sleek, beautiful, wittily designed (count the animal imagery among Adam Rigg’s set and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes), wonderful performances by excellent actors, all of it perfectly preserving the enigmatic poetry of Fornes’s play. I enjoyed having dinner afterwards with my friend Jay (at the delicious new Mexican gastropub around the corner, Las Santas) and parsing the echoes of Mabel Dodge Luhan (intimate friend of Gertrude Stein’s) in Fefu, expounding on how the final image of the play influenced Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and counting the number of lesbians onstage.

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