According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.” Based on this shocking fact and the tenth year anniversary of playwright Donja R. Love’s own diagnosis, he has written “one in two,” an unusual new play being given its world premiere by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center. The play has an improvised air as well as choosing the character assignments at each performance.
When the audience enters the theater, they see on stage three black men (listed in the program as Person on the Left, Person in the Middle, and Person on the Right) dressed in pants, barefoot and shirtless, on an all-white stage that suggests a medical waiting room. High up on the wall are three screens on which numbers continually rise. (We later realize that these are the statistics about the number of men who have contracted AIDS.)
After a certain amount of time that we hear a ticking sound, a white ticket dispenser appears on one wall and the three men each take a number. The men decide to revolt and turn to the audience to choose who will be Number 1 by clapping. After one man has been chosen to play the protagonist named Donté, the other men choose who will be Numbers 2 and 3 by using the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. At each performance, the audience is asked to pick the lead player which means that director Stevie Walker-Webb has rehearsed three actors in each role.
The play begins and the men are first children playing but soon segue to adults. Donté, a gay male, finds out in a visit to a clinic that he is HIV positive. In short, quick scenes, we then see him with his soon to be ex-boyfriend (who disappears), his loving mother who has trouble dealing with his condition, a support group, a local bar with a compassionate bar tender, and at home in bed with a hustler. He becomes an alcoholic and stops taking his medicine. He becomes suicidal and then the actor playing Donté refuses to continue and wants to rewrite the scenario. Eventually the three actors wonder if the numbers which have reached two million will ever stop growing.
While the content of the play seems familiar, the presentation seems unique. However, although such plays as As Is, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and now The Inheritance have dealt with gay men dealing with being HIV positive or having AIDS, this may be the first such play in which all of the characters are African American. Under the direction of Walker-Webb (who also directed Ain’t No Mo at the Public last spring) the actors are totally believable playing both men and women by using various costume pieces and props that they find in drawers hidden on stage.
At the performance under review, Edward Mawere was chosen to play Donté and went through the gamut of emotions as he deals – or fails to deal – with his diagnosis, going through many stages. Each of the other two actors play four characters each with total conviction: Leland Fowler as Number 2 (portraying Mom, Banjii Cunt at the Center, Trade, and Person at the Bar) with Jamyl Dobson as Number 3, playing Bartender, Female Nurse, Kinda Ex-Boyfriend, and Married Man at the Center.
The production team is entirely in tune with Love and Walker-Webb’s dramatic concept. Arnulfo Maldonado’s white set (which could be anywhere) has furniture and props as well as costumes cleverly hidden in compartments on the set allowing for smooth and quick transitions of scenes. The costumes by Andy Jean immediately identify each character in turn. Cha See’s lighting which is usually clinically white also uses color for mood and scene divisions. Sound designer Justin Ellington is responsible for the ticking which we hear in the beginning while Alex Basco Koch has created the video display of the number sequence which never seems to stop rising.
Unlike Donja R. Love’s last play Fireflies, one in two uses many non-realistic resources of theater to tell its story. While the play does not have a great many revelations, it does have several theatrical surprises. It also may just be the first play to recount the story of Black gay men who are HIV positive and ultimately offer hope.
one in two (through January 12, 2020)
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 917-935-4242 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission