- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

Woolly Mammoth’s new season gets off to a commanding start with “In the Continuum,” Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s soaring and grave look at how AIDS affects two very different young black women in Los Angeles and Zimbabwe.

Before you ask yourself, “What does AIDS have to do with me?” consider that the District has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS of any American city, and 90 percent of those infected are black women. In 2003, AIDS was also the leading cause of death in black women ages 25 to 35.

The theater world is rife with plays dealing with AIDS from such playwrights as Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer, Paula Vogel and Harry Kondoleon, and most of them portray the devastation the virus has visited upon homosexuals.

The stories of heterosexual women have been, for the most part, neglected. “In the Continuum” — an embracing, perceptive and funny work directed by Robert O’Hara — seeks to redress this neglect without being an overbearing message play.

“In the Continuum” came out of extensive research and observation — Miss Salter is a native of Los Angeles, and Miss Gurira was raised in Zimbabwe. Although continents apart, Abigail (Miss Gurira) and Nia (Miss Salter), mirror one another: Each is left alone to face not only her HIV/AIDS diagnosis, but also the censure the disease brings from ignorant people.

Abigail is a newscaster, polished and professional, at a state-owned station in insolvent Zimbabwe. Her status in society is further elevated due to her being married and a mother. Her latest pregnancy is a source of great joy until she is informed that she is HIV-positive and her philandering husband must also come to the clinic for testing. In a split second, Abigail’s world goes from composed to chaotic.

Desperate, she visits a witch doctor (a “nganga,” or traditional healer, she corrects herself), a sex worker and a socially conscious dilettante — anything to avoid having to tell her husband and her family, who will surely punish her or, worse, send her back to her village.

Nia is a streetwise home girl from South Central L.A. who pins all her hopes on her boyfriend of 10 months, a basketball prodigy. When she finds herself pregnant, Nia believes this is her ticket out of the ghetto and into the land of bling, but the discovery of her HIV status changes all that. Nia now carries an unborn child and a deadly secret, one she cannot confess to her friends, mother, counselor, or even to the baby’s father.

The two actresses play not only the main roles but also an astonishing array of ancillary characters. Miss Gurira exudes accomplishment and pride as Abigail, and then seamlessly transforms herself into a stern, snapping turtle of a nurse, a sultry and cheerfully shrewd prostitute, a combustible witch doctor and a marvelously pretentious rich do-gooder.

As Nia, Miss Salter combines major attitude with an almost childlike sense of expectation, at once wised-up and wistful. She also plays with infectious zeal and precision the women in Nia’s world — her hard-line mother (who comments “real love lasts forever, so does real mistakes”), an unctuous self-help maven, a hilarious gold-digging cousin and, finally, her boyfriend’s mother, who protects her son with chilling pragmatism.

You get so wrapped up in Nia and Abigail’s lives that you pray they push past their fear and helplessness and speak up. But the play does not settle for a contrived, upbeat ending. Instead, it quietly shatters by portraying the reality of many black women grappling with AIDS. In the homosexual community, silence equals death. In the communities portrayed in “In the Continuum,” silence equals — for a short time — a life beyond judgment and shame.

***1/2

WHAT: “In the Continuum” by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 24.

TICKETS: $30 to $46

PHONE: 202/393-3939

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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