Wednesday, December 18, 2019

136 (2019-2020): Review: one in two (seen December 18, 2019)

“Donté’s Inferno”

Just as the presence of AIDS in the public conscience has dwindled somewhat with the arrival of, if not cures, at least an increase in ameliorative and life-prolonging treatments, so has the urgency to write AIDS-themed plays. However, as the current productions of the supersized, two-part The Inheritance and the far more intimate one in two ­demonstrate, the subject continues to inspire important writing.

Edward Mawere, Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler. All photos: Monique Carboni.
The latter, by Donja R. Love (Fireflies, Sugar in Our Wounds), at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center, and directed for the New Group with flair by Stevie Walker-Webb, is well-written and brilliantly acted. Its often-penetrating script, however, is a bit too stylistically gimmicky and didactically oriented to invite full emotional participation.
Leland Fowler, Jamyl Dobson, Edward Mawere. 
By World AIDS Day, December 1, 1997, only 12 years after the Off Broadway to Broadway transfer of As Is, William M. Hoffman’s pioneering drama about AIDS, the American theatre (not only in New York) had seen well over a dozen more plays and musicals related to the then predominantly gay-related health crisis that erupted in the early 80s. The titles, some still in the repertory, include The Last Session, A Question of Mercy, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, Jerker, Beirut, Eastern Standard, Just Say No, The Wizard of A.I.D.S, Lonely Planet, The Destiny of Me, A Quiet End, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, The Baltimore Waltz, Falsettos, Jeffry, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Rent.
Edward Mawere, Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler.
For whatever reason, nothing like such a torrent of HIV plays has emerged in the 22 intervening years (dementia and Alzheimer's now dominate illness-related themes), but, as The Inheritance and one in two reveal, the subject continues to require dramatized discussion. Love, whose Playbill bio declares that he’s “black, queer, HIV+ and surviving,” explains in a program note how he came to write his play.
Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, Edward Mawere.
He says that, depressed about the approaching 10th anniversary of his condition, and harboring suicidal thoughts, he confronted his situation by typing the play into his phone when he couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed to retrieve his laptop. Not only had he become concerned by a 2016 CDC study declaring that “one in two [my italics] Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime,” he’d also been moved by talking to a young man who’d recently learned he’d contracted the illness.
Jamyl Dobson (rear), Edward Mawere.
Noting how the man’s experiences mirrored his own, Love created this semi-absurdist, metatheatrical dramedy to address the particular community of gay, black men. He hoped to force audiences not to merely sympathize with these AIDS victims but to do something about it. The play, then, using a number of nonrealistic techniques while remaining grounded in the reality of lived experience (with an autobiographical aura), comes burdened with a mission, making it as much a polemic as a dramatic exercise. Too often, though, despite its humor and pathos, the polemics dominate the drama. 

Fortunately, its three actors are extremely gifted and, even when the play is affecting your brain more than your gut, you remain thoroughly impressed with their performances. Perhaps, in fact, more than is healthy for the play. That’s because Love’s premise requires the audience, several minutes into the play, to choose (by clapping, hooting, stamping, or whatever) which actor—Person on the Left (Jamyl Dobson), Person in the Center (Leland Fowler), or Person on the Right (Edward Mawere)—will play the central role. The character is a playwright, designated as number 1, but called Donté, a name we see him give his penis when he's a kid.

Edward Mawere was thus appointed Donté when I attended. After a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Dobson took on number 2 and Fowler number 3. Number 2 portrays the most diverse range of characters, including number 1's mother and a flamboyantly over-the-top "banjii cunt." Each actor, barefoot and in gray sweat pants, dons a black tank top with his designated number on it, with Numbers 2 and 3 adding simple costume pieces (Andy Jean is the designer) to designate their multiple roles.

This means that each actor must know thoroughly the words and business of all three characters, a very difficult assignment given the complexity of language and action required by the play. What happens, though, is that some audience members may find themselves distracted from the play to ponder how, if the cast arrangement were different, what each of the actors might do with the other roles. In other words, the device sometimes draws attention from what the actors are saying and doing to extraneous issues. At least, that’s what happened with me.

The casting device is perhaps meant to suggest the universality of black, queer experience, regardless of what, for example, anyone looks like. One actor is overweight, one tall and muscular, and one slender and medium sized. Regardless, each is compellingly vivid and believable throughout, no matter what's demanded.

The action is set in Arnulfo Maldonado’s white, box-like set, strikingly lit by Cha See, forming a sort of No Exit-like purgatory where, instead of hell being other people, hell is the threat of HIV among gay blacks who, Groundhog Day-like, are destined to repeat the process over and over until something ends the epidemic. Built into the set are segments that open like drawers or slide out to represent specific places, including a bed or a bar counter.

Direct address reminds us that we’re watching a play. Number 3 even says, when Donté asks why he’s been given his name: “Because, ummm, we’re telling a story. Duh. (points to The Audience) And they need an easily identifiable protagonist to follow, to help them make sense of an already amorphous, challenging, and borderline non-existent ass plot.”

The fast-paced narrative, often underpinned by Justin Ellington’s terrific music, follows the path of Donté’s life from innocent childhood to alcohol-infused adulthood, with the actors role-playing his life’s principal friendship, romantic, sexual, familial, and medical highlights. The language is often crude (lots of “suck my dick”-type expostulations), the behavior depressed, friendly, violent, or shamelessly (be prepared) sexual.

Meanwhile, three large screens high on the back wall (video design by Alex Basco Koch) register a continuing tally of HIV deaths, which reaches well over 2 million by the time the play ends. At that point, the cast stands, backs to the audience, watching the numbers speed by. In one of the production’s several less successful choices, the audience has no idea if the play is over (it is), if it should clap (it should), or if it's time to leave (it is).
Leland Fowler, Edward Marwere.
There’s much here by which to be engaged but, despite the passion and humor on view, one in two's abstractions make the experience more mental than moving. When it’s over, you’re glad you saw it and you’ve definitely learned something. However, even with the fatality toll racing by, your sensitivities are never wrenched the way so many declare they are at the not all that dissimilar conclusion to Part 1 of The Inheritance, or the unforgettable one that ends Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 12