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Theatre in Review: one in two (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Jamyl Dobson, Edward Mawere. Photo: Monique Carboni.

For his new drama, which is startlingly unlike his history-based works, Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies, Donja R. Love has appropriated the setup of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit for his own urgent purposes. one in two -- the title references the alarming projection, recently made by the CDC, that half of black gay men will eventually be diagnosed with HIV -- plants three black actors in an eerily sterile environment -- an all-white space, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado -- that could be a waiting room, an operating theatre, or a morgue -- from which there is no escape, and forces them to reenact, over and over, the story of Donté, a young man whose life enters a tailspin following his HIV diagnosis.

Love poses a daunting challenge to his three-member cast: The role of Donté is chosen by audience acclaim at the top of the evening -- we are kept in the dark about what we are voting for -- with the others assigned their roles by similarly random means. They don numbered T-shirts that denote their character tracks. This means each actor must memorize the entire script and be ready, at a moment's notice, to take on the role of Donté or a parade of supporting characters. (The confidence with which all three attack this task is a testament to the talent on display.) It would be interesting to see one in two more than once, to see if different casting yields different values. (Then again, since the decision is made at curtain time, one can never be sure what to expect.)

In any case, one in two treats its subject matter in an entirely fresh way, laying bare an epidemic that many in the audience may never have thought about and focusing on the nexus of racism, homophobia, and self-hatred that can prove more debilitating than physical illness. As a nurse points out to Donté, with the drugs available these days, combined with close attention to one's health, HIV can be rendered virtually undetectable. But Donté's first treatment causes painful side effects, draining his spirit at a time when he needs to face his so-called loved ones. His "kinda ex-boyfriend" pledges eternal devotion, only to disappear the following morning. Donté's mother exudes sympathy of a particularly chilly sort, quietly urging him to keep his health status on the QT; worse, she enjoys reminding him of the financial sacrifices she and his father have made on his behalf and her selfless devotion to others, for example by volunteering for the AIDS Walk. It's little wonder that, following a hot hookup, his sex partner informs him that he won't be coming back for seconds: Donté's eyes are too sad, and, he adds, "I feel like dat shit might jump on me."

Buckling under the burdens of shame and loneliness, Donté neglects his health, hitting the bottle hard. (When he actually shows up for a medical appointment, which isn't that often, he is often inebriated.) Suicide looms as an ever-present possibility, leading to a wrenching scene in which, on the phone, he pours out his broken heart to his mother's message machine, before potentially taking irreversible action.

But must he? It's a question that hangs over the action of one in two. Indeed, what may seem like a depressing and deterministic account is vividly alive for any number of reasons. It is loaded with humor, beginning with a sequence in which three small boys display their genitalia to each other; one of them has named the organ in question after the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. One of Donté's pickups, a writer, casually details his favorite topics: "The plight of the Black community. The prison industrial complex. Police brutality. Toxic masculinity. Rape culture. Counter culture. Doin' It 4 Da Culture. Da mamas dat be birthin' the cultures. Mamas on the sofa wonderin', 'Oh Lordy, why you make my life so hard?'" The list goes on, uproariously, for another twelve lines. Another character, Banji, a devotee of ballroom culture and a world-class trash-talker, tells an amusingly scalding story about simultaneously dating a father and son, leading to an attempted FaceTime hookup direct from a Chuck E. Cheese.

Clearly, Love is determined to give voice to a range of characters, each of whom sheds light on another angle of this largely silent epidemic. An infected married man says, "I'm tired of pretending that my husband's mom is dead. I'm tired of having that be the only way I can make sense of never meeting this woman that means so much to him. I'm tired of pretending that every time he talks to her or about her that it's actually a ghost, that he's hallucinating. I'm tired of him pretending that everything is okay." It isn't surprising that someone notes, "Sometimes the hurt is a bigger virus than the HIV."

Less effective is the play's presentational setup, which often feels fuzzily conceived. The basic concept -- that the cast members are imprisoned (apparently by society as a whole or some such thing) and forced to act out a deterministic scenario that ends in suicide -- is possibly overthrown when the actors rebel, trying to seize control of the narrative and find another solution. (More than once, they are punished for such acting-out with a sound-and-light cue suggestive of electrical torture.) The apparent reason for this ritual storytelling is that "black death gets through" to the audience, but, ultimately, the toll on the actors is too much. As one of them bitterly notes, "One in two is an epidemic. But, it's like people don't care. Is it because I look the way I do? My story isn't important because I don't look like I could've been in The Normal Heart or Angels in A-fucking-merica?" It's a good question, but it's also true that in its most meta moments, one in two sometimes puts its cards on the table too blatantly, slipping into oration.

Then again, Stevie Walker-Webb's direction maintains a fast, gripping pace and all three actors attack the text with the agility of Olympic gymnasts. At the performance I attended, Edward Mawere effectively called up the terrible sadness that infects Donté's soul; Jamyl Dobson showed astonishing range, from Donté's butch, ghetto-style sex partner to the operatic Banji; and Leland Fowler underplayed expertly, especially as the married man whose husband keeps him under wraps, a secret never to be revealed.

Maldonado's set is lit with considerable invention by Cha See, who fluently mixes different temperatures of white, deploying saturated looks for club scenes and the like. (I could do without the LED tape -- or is it rope light? -- that outlines the set; it cheapens the effect of a design that should be chilling and clinical.) Andy Jean dresses the actors in grey sweatpants, varying their shirts and sweaters for different characters. Justin Ellington's sound design includes various effects plus some selections of EDM, hip-hop, and -- I think -- a bit of Lizzo's "Truth Hurts." Alex Basco Koch's projection design is the simplest, and most dismaying, contribution: A digital counter on the upstage wall runs all night long, its increasing numbers keeping track of a mounting infection rate that nobody seems able to stop.

While one in two has its blatant PSA moments, it adds to the burst of new writing from black gay playwrights -- including Robert O'Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael R. Jackson -- who are providing theatregoers with so much to talk about right now. In its best moments, of which there are many, it serves as a powerful call to action: Noting how often he is treated by others with a saddening mix of sympathy and distance, one character says, "It's like they're saying, 'Aw, poor thing, I'm so sorry for you.' It's like their words are so close, but their bodies let me know they're so far away or want to be. So don't do that. Don't be far away." -- David Barbour

(10 December 2019)

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