By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Some actors come with a gift for instant rapport. They're so in their element on the stage, so keenly attuned to the roles they're assigned, they appear to harbor some secret knowledge of how to cut through the artifice and get to the heart of it -- to the heart of us.
It's a facility Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira employ in high style for "In the Continuum," their two-person, multi-character tragicomedy about the lives of two women with nothing in common except a virus. The women never meet -- one is a news reader in Zimbabwe, the other a salesclerk at a Los Angeles Nordstrom -- and yet by evening's end we are reminded in wholly satisfying ways of how intertwined the fates of total strangers can be.
Salter and Gurira began their collaboration on the 95-minute play while they were in the acting program at New York University. A well-received production at Primary Stages in Manhattan led to an extended off-Broadway run. Now they are touring the country with the work, and the first stop is Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Their arrival offers a propitious launch for a new theater season: What better way to begin than with a robust display of youthful ingenuity?
On a practically bare Woolly stage -- the only adornment a back wall washed in muted colors -- the women enact the parallel trials of Abigail, a Zimbabwean wife and mother, and Nia, a working-poor Angeleno. Three letters are their link: HIV. Abigail contracts it from her husband, Stanford, a member of the Harare elite; Nia from her boyfriend, Darnell, an NBA prospect. With each actress playing all of the supporting roles in her own character's story, "In the Continuum" records the toll exacted on Abigail and Nia as they come to the same realization: that their straying men have made them sick.
AIDS may seem a rather passe choice as the subject of a new play. The 1990s were the era of "Angels in America" and "Rent," both written when the disease still regularly made Page 1. This, in fact, may be Salter and Gurira's point: Though the disease may seem less threatening these days for some populations, its dangers remain a virulent current event for others. Threading together tales of formidable if vulnerable black women on two continents proves an effective way of illustrating the contemporary tentacles of marginalization and oppression.
Okay, that sounds awfully lofty and macro. The success, in point of fact, of "In the Continuum" is in its humble, microcosmic tack. Salter, Los Angeles born, and Gurira, an American raised in Zimbabwe, are incisive observers of the cultures they bring to the stage: The vignettes at times radiate documentary immediacy. Plus they're both marvelous mimics, deftly shuffling accent and countenance to create a memorable gallery of characters, virtually all of them women.
Until the play's final minutes, when the authors seem to struggle with their construct and reach awkwardly for some larger statement, "In the Continuum" is a pair of funny, compassionate solo shows rolled up into each other. As directed by the skillful Robert O'Hara, the stories have logical progression, and to demonstrate their connectedness, parallel twists. The idea is smartly underlined just once, during a scenic transition in which the women defy time and space and physically collide.
We like to think we live in a time when women can make their own choices. "In the Continuum" suggests in some places and on some social strata, men still call the shots. Gurira's Abigail is an up-and-coming TV personality for whom a diagnosis potentially means not just the end of her marriage but also a shame so stigmatizing she faces being cast back into a life of rural destitution. Salter's Nia hitches her wagon to a budding basketball star, her caviar wishes magnified after she learns she's pregnant and her friends tell her to celebrate: She now has a surer link to Darnell's heartstrings as well as his purse strings.
Nia, though, like Abigail, is a character of some dignity and self-reflection, and the thought of putting her future entirely in Darnell's hands gives her some pause. In a scene of desperate poignancy, Nia is in a motel room, contemplating the leave-him-alone check she's accepted from Darnell's mother. If Salter were any more tenderly convincing, the check would be real, too.
Salter plays Darnell's mother; Nia's mother; a cousin who instructs Nia on the finer points of blackmail; a sloganeering social worker who makes the spurious claim that she, too, is "from the 'hood." Any of them could fall prey to caricature, but there's restraint in all this portraiture etched with wit. Salter changes demeanor with each new hair style. Gurira, yin to Salter's yang, does it with the draping of a piece of fabric. She gives us an equally rich cast of Zimbabwean characters, from a nose-in-the-air ex-school chum of Abigail's to a witch doctor of questionable skill, one who reads faces better than chicken bones.
The aspects of contemporary African life are an exotic counterpoint to the more familiar rhythms of the streets of South-Central L.A. Then again, "In the Continuum" is not so much about what separates women as what draws them into needful communion. And it's with grace and vigor that these actresses clasp hands across the divide.
In the Continuum , written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter. Directed by Robert O'Hara. Set, Peter R. Feuchtwanger; costumes, Sarah Hillard; lighting, Colin D. Young; sound, Lindsay Jones; props, Jay Duckworth. Approximately 95 minutes. Through Sept. 24 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit http://www.woollymammoth.net .