Let's talk about race. There is a tendency among white folks (and I am a very white folk) to lavish uncritical praise upon any piece of sensitive-looking art that comes from the black community, so long as the art in question somehow affirms the nobility of any white people who might come in contact with it. "Wow! This is so meaningful! I must be an awfully good person to be able to empathize with these black people!"
Maybe it's not articulated in precisely those terms, but that's not important. What's important is that spewing praise all over In the Continuum would be so predictable as to be meaningless. It would do nothing but allow potential readers to scan the first few paragraphs and assume that another piece of cookie-cutter PC art was getting its stamp of approval from the establishment. "That's lovely," somebody might say. "I'm so glad the world is a fair place and that modern theater is so vivifyingly multicultural." And then they'd move on.
But don't do that. Because In the Continuum is not designed to make you, me, or anybody feel good, and it shouldn't. This is a play about two human beings being crushed, utterly, beyond hope of redemption. There is no ideology in that. There's no room for it — the space where the ideology would go is already filled with blood and tears. Nobody should leave this thing feeling ennobled. Anybody who does is a fucking jerk.
In the Continuum
Written by Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira. Directed by Joe Adler. With Lela Elam and Kameshia Duncan. Through November 18. GableStage, the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables; 305 446-1116, www.gablestage.com.
Let's not talk race. Let's talk people. If you'd like to draw a distinction between good and bad theater, it might be this: Bad theater treats people like finished facts with no surprises left in them. Good theater makes people seem alive and makes their choices look like real choices, rather than the inevitable byproducts of a story arc or maneuvers designed to satisfy an audience's expectations. In the Continuum is not a fun play — despite a few chuckle-worthy moments early on, its fun-factor ranks somewhere between Death of a Salesman and House of Sand and Fog — but it is an immensely worthwhile one, if only because its protagonists live as people live and fail as people fail. It says quite a few things that hardly anybody has the balls to say, and the closest it comes to letting anybody off the hook is a curtain call, which reminds you that Kameshia Duncan and Lela Elam really are only actors — which isn't very helpful, because millions of women around the world are enacting dramas much like theirs, and those women aren't actors at all.
Duncan plays Abigail, a newswoman for a government TV station in Zimbabwe (not the greatest government to work for — she hasn't gotten paid in six weeks); Elam plays Nia, a 19-year-old girl in South Central Los Angeles. They never interact with one another; rather they each hold down half the stage, trading monologues delineating their neatly parallel lives. Both are pregnant, and neither one has told the father. Horrifically both cling to the notion that carrying their children to term will force their men to stick by them. And both have just learned they are HIV positive.
Who's to blame? The father. That's how it goes. Will revealing their pregnancies really keep the men around? Of course not. That, too, is how it goes.
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What to do? Beyond traveling back in time and getting born as non-African nonfemales, there are no obvious solutions to their problems. But they do not intend to go down without a fight. So they thrash around, trying to find some appropriate target for their wrath, an outlet for their fear, or even just some kind of relief. In the meantime, they bring their troubles to a slew of other characters, all of whom are impotent in the face of the two women's blasted lives. Duncan plays, variously, a witch doctor, a hooker, a high school friend, and a doctor. Elam portrays Nia's cousin, her boyfriend's mother, and, most heartbreakingly, Nia's counselor — a woman so clearly on another frequency that, when she talks about attending a "Journey Towards Self-Discovery Conference," she really thinks she's explaining something Nia can understand and use.
Duncan and Elam are reportedly the first two women to tackle these roles since their creation by playwrights Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter at New York University. Even if the play were a failure, you'd have to admire the actors' audacity. The only role of comparable difficulty in recent memory was Pilar Uribe's turn as something like a dozen different Iraqi women in 9 Parts of Desire, at Mosaic Theatre in April. That part was largely poetic, conceptual where In the Continuum is conversational. Uribe could use grand, operatic gestures to get her point across; Duncan and Elam have to talk to you.
By the end of the play, real love (or whatever it was that brought these women together with these men) seems no less elusive than the healing powers of Duncan's medicine man. GableStage will be showing In the Continuum to high school students on weekday mornings for the duration of its run, and it probably won't make them feel any better about theater or about their lives. But you can bet it'll help define the stakes of both.