“With In the Continuum, [Danai] Gurira and [Nikkole] Salter have created one monumental and momentous work of theater that demands and deserves attention. Their words and performances entertain the viewer but, what is important, also educate him about HIV and AIDS ... HIV and AIDS do not discriminate—do not know the difference between sexes, races, creeds, and colors—and In the Continuum is the same. A profound drama, its message and the characters who are its deliverers are far-reaching. Flawless, In the Continuum is a must-see.”
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Featuring a flood of characters from Zimbabwe and South Central, Los Angeles, In the Continuum is told from the perspectives of Black women with HIV and AIDS. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes one to help a person survive HIV and AIDS, but, as writers and performers Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter make clear, this does not happen all the time.
From the beginning, the viewer knows In the Continuum is full of possibilities once Gurira and Salter sound timeless schoolgirl chants—Gurira in Bantu language, Salter in English—with engrossing excitement. Juxtaposed are the experiences of two Black women characters—one from Zimbabwe, one from South Central—with stories that weave and connect with those of the prominent people in their lives. This is an outstanding theatrical device—one occurring several times—that prepares the viewer for the character studies to follow. Abigail is a successful ZBC News anchorwoman who believes a second child will save her failing marriage and keep her husband interested. Nia, a pregnant but club-hopping teenager, lives in a shelter and works for minimum wage at Nordstrom, where she gives herself five-finger discounts to protest how the department store treats both her and “Javier and them,” its underpaid and unacknowledged non-English speaking workers. To think that neither woman would have learned about her HIV infection had circumstances—an unborn child for Abigail, a shooting for Nia—not forced them to seek medical attention is chilling.
In their character studies, Gurira and Salter breathe life into people all too often caricatured and dehumanized in mainstream culture. Gurira and Salter render each character as real as the persons sitting on either side of the viewer in the theater. With each character, In the Continuum explores the social dilemmas and feelings of Black people that are not captured in Black characters molded with White hands. AIDS as Government Experiment. AIDS as Homosexual Affliction. AIDS as Plot to Kill Black People. Each is a conjecture regurgitated on a regular basis within Black communities, and how important it is that In the Continuum regurgitates them but offers truth as well. Each character is an authentic original that, using well-timed interjections of Black colloquialism and teeth sucking, makes the viewer smile and laugh. Each uses drama as well, to make the viewer hurt—whether ghetto fabulous Nia, who will travel the road of motherhood alone, or “bougie” Abigail who, due to self-hatred and assimilation, loses all ties to her people but all of a sudden visits the fabled Witch Doctor with hope of a cure that is absent. HIV and AIDS in Africa and America—HIV and AIDS in Black communities—are real problems, and if the viewer did not know this upon entering the theater, it is this he knows upon exiting. In the past, African men who tested positive for HIV raped infants, thinking the penetration of newborn virgins the cure for the disease; the desperation the men feel is the same desperation Nia and Abigail feel—a desperation that saturates their characters and overcomes the viewer.
Gurira and Salter are exceptional writers and actresses. From the second the viewer meets Gurira as Abigail and Salter as Nia, he knows he has met characters that will fill his hunger for well-made stories. Each time Gurira finishes one of her character studies, Salter propels another one of hers into motion, and then Gurira returns. At the turn of a phrase, the start of a traditional African chant, or the sound of a musical cue, characters with vibrant personalities emerge. Unforgettable ones are “Witch Doctor,” who pockets extra dollars from tourists who want him to fulfill the Western construct of the head-shaking, gibberish-speaking, arms-flailing African healer, and “Miss Keisha,” the bad advice-doling friend of Nia, who has spunk, with the neck jerks, lip puckers, hair flips, and finger snaps as proof. Each character keeps the viewer at the edge of his seat, and this is where Gurira and Salter keep him. One of several powerful moments occurs when Abigail and Nia decide to confront their men with the news of their infections. Both women are from near opposite sides of the world, but disbelief is suspended and each helps the other in grieving and with the challenges of coming forward with her news. Will Nia reveal her infection? What will become of Abigail, her husband, and their two children? Will both women become statistics or survivors? The ending is a sad surprise—believable but heart-wrenching nonetheless. The stories Gurira and Salter tell are comedic but tragic helpings of entertainment and education. That the viewer will hunger for second and third helpings is guaranteed.
In 1988, Spike Lee premiered the film School Daze, a musical satire, which offered shocking observations about the intraracial conflicts between light-skinned and dark-skinned Black people, citing its rise as the result of outer-directed influences. At the end of the film, the character Dap Dunlap implored the Black viewer to awake from four centuries of ignorance about the inner workings of his people. In the Continuum does the same for HIV and AIDS in Black cultural centers—imploring the Black viewer to awake and realize that HIV and AIDS are real—but the universal appeal of the two-woman show includes all people in the exchange, as the show is “an invitation for more unheard stories to be brought [into the continuum].” Gurira and Salter unveil the struggles of people—not Black women alone—in modern times, and, in doing so, reveal the social, personal, and cultural norms keeping people from practicing safe sex and abstinence; and the lack of resources and education keeping people from understanding the lifelong impact of HIV and AIDS.
HIV and AIDS have reached pandemic proportions, each second infecting people on all seven continents, people sometimes oblivious to the virus inside their bloodstreams. HIV and AIDS have withstood three decades almost, without the advent of a cure. It was not until recent times, however, that the virus and subsequent disease affected Black Americans and Africans, their respective communities, and consequent impressions of their cultures in major media outlets, late afternoon talk shows included. What is more, it was not until recent times the virus and disease affected Black American and African women, who now represent the highest rate of new infections in the United States and Africa. How crucial it is that two Black women have created two characters with social voices—two characters that are not statistics but breathing, caring, and emoting human beings with as much grasp of their senses as the next person. With In the Continuum, Gurira and Salter have created one monumental and momentous work of theater that demands and deserves attention. Their words and performances entertain the viewer but, what is important, educate him about HIV and AIDS.
Never mind In the Continuum is about and told from the Black Female Perspective. HIV and AIDS do not discriminate—do not know the difference between sexes, races, creeds, and colors—and In the Continuum is the same. A profound drama, its message and the characters who are its deliverers are far-reaching. Flawless, In the Continuum is a must-see.