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one in two
. . . one in two Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. — Playwright Donja R. Love paraphrasing the finding of a study released in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
donja love
Jamyl Dobson and Edward Mawer - Photo: Monique Carboni.
According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in two gay men of color in our country are likely to be or become infected with HIV unless current epidemiological circumstances change radically. This statistic — or, rather, this hypothesis — is the genesis of one in two, the compelling three-actor play by Donja R. Love currently receiving a superb world-premiere production under the sure-handed direction of Stevie Walker-Webb.

one in two is the chronicle of Donte, a youthful urban black man newly diagnosed with HIV. Over the past three decades, the highest-profile plays depicting HIV-positive and AIDS-infected characters — The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, and the current Broadway hit The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, for instance — feature protagonists who are bourgeois (or, at least, well educated) white men. Their stories have been told primarily in naturalistic or melodramatic terms, though Kushner mixes some elements of the supernatural and a brief excursion to Heaven in his epic drama. In tackling the topic of black men and HIV (far less frequently, if ever, addressed in mainstream theater), Love chooses an anti-naturalistic mode, reminiscent at times of Paula Vogel's early AIDS-inspired play The Baltimore Waltz).

one in two begins with three actors, shirtless (which stresses their vulnerability), biding time in an unidentified place. It's "nowhere" and "everywhere," the playwright suggests in his script. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado has created a nondescript space, neutral in color, that swiftly becomes a doctor's office, a bar, a bedroom, and the venue of a therapy group with the skillful aid of lighting designer Cha See. Throughout the performance, screens at the back of the stage display numbers — astronomical figures that increase rapidly — reminding us that, despite much heralded medical progress, HIV infection is still spreading swiftly and relentlessly.

The gravity of what's ahead is clear from the moment the play begins. With trepidation, the actors draw numbers to determine who will take which role; they resist diving into the story by bickering about the results of the draw. (Edward Mawere was compelling as Donte in the performance under review; he and his colleagues, Jamyl Dobson and Leland Fowler, are among the best actors on New York stages at the moment.)

Once under way, Donte's saga progresses in an episodic, stop-and-go fashion, with frequent interruptions. Each episode reveals something essential about the protagonist's emotional response to his diagnosis — denial, depression, panic, suicidal urges, resignation, suicidal urges — as well as the responses of his mother, his "kinda-ex boyfriend," members of his therapy group, and others. The play builds to a bone-chilling outburst by one of Love's infected characters, dismayed because society doesn't understand that "this is still an epidemic." "Is it because I look the way I do?" he demands. "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? Is that it?"

one in two could be termed the anti-Angels in America. Love (in contrast to playwrights Kushner, Kramer, and Lopez) steers largely clear of both naturalism and melodrama. That's why those interruptions in the story are important: they're landmines of Brechtian-style alienation that counteract the naturally sympathetic aspects of this saga of infection and fragility. They keep the spectator focused on the social and moral points of the script. Where Kushner, Kramer, and Lopez ensconce their audiences in a dramatic universe filled with suspense, Love's script is like one of St. Paul's letters to the early Christians, addressing crisis and anxiety with missionary urgency. It's a report from the front lines of the epidemic (similar, in its way, to journalist Randy Shilts' account, The Band Played On, back in 1987 when the AIDS crisis was being reported largely in terms of its effect on middle-class white men).

Love is the author of two plays recently presented by prominent Off-Broadway companies (Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies ), which are a curious but effective blend of poetic and banal aspects. He's candid about his own HIV status and the source of this new play. "I started writing one in two at the end of 2018," he says in a program note. "I was approaching the 10th anniversary of being HIV+, and I found myself depressed and experiencing suicidal ideations. The shame I once felt about being positive reemerged. I knew writing would help me navigate through my shame, but it was difficult to just get out of bed to get my laptop off my desk. So I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and started writing this play in the notes app."

one in two lacks the poetic inclination of the two previous plays, yet it's no less powerful and, at times, more so. It's both agitprop (in the most constructive sense of that term) and a dramatic work of striking originality. Here is a prophetic voice — appropriately named Love — likely to change lives.

Editor's Note
Here are links to Charles Wright's reviews of Love's previous plays: Sugar In Our Wounds and Fireflies.

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one in two by Donja R. Love
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb
Cast: Jamyl Dobson (Person on the Left), Leland Fowler (Person in the Middle), Edward Mawere (Person on the Right)
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Andy Jean
Lighting Design: Cha See
Sound Design: Justin Ellington
Production Stage Manager: Jacob W. Plummer
Running Time: 85 minutes, without intermission
The New Group at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre of the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
From 11/19/19; opened 12/10/19; closing 01/12/20
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 pm
Reviewed by Charles Wright at the evening performance on 12/06/19.

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