Invisible Women | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Invisible Women 

An off-Broadway hit with an undertreated subject: black women with HIV.

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IN THE CONTINUUM GOODMAN THEATRE

WHEN Through 6/24: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $15-$35

INFO 312-443-3800

Though the first generation of AIDS dramas--William Hoffman's As Is, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner's Angels in America--focused almost exclusively on gay HIV-infected protagonists, gay dramatists have shiftedtheir attention to other issues since the mid-90s, when HIV drug cocktails began to slow the death rate. But the deadly toll taken by AIDS hasn't slowed among African and African-American women, who have the highest rates of new HIV infection in the world. Many of these women, particularly in Africa, are married and monogamous, which challenges the notion that matrimony is a bulwark against the disease.

Compared to their early theatrical counterparts, black women with AIDS have been nearly invisible onstage, but In the Continuum, written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, places them center stage. Well received off-Broadway in late 2005, it's now being given its local premiere--with Robert O'Hara's original deft staging--at the Goodman. The show loosely ties together the experiences of two women in different countries who both find out they're pregnant and have HIV. Gurira, a native Zimbabwean, plays Abigail, a news anchor with Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation who has a seven-year-old son and a handsome husband. Salter is 19-year-old Nia, a sometime poet from South Central Los Angeles with a troubled home life. Estranged from her mother, she's just lost her job at Nordstrom after taking too many "five-fingered discounts." She hopes to find a way out of her marginal life through her boyfriend of "ten months and three weeks," Darnell, a high school basketball star being heavily recruited by top universities.

Rather than using interlocking monologues, In the Continuum relies on dialogues in which the person being spoken to is silent. The effect is like watching Anna Deavere Smith's interview subjects come to life onstage, though Gurira and Salter's writing is less self-conscious, better suited to characters whose lives are unraveling than to characters recounting episodes from the past. Each woman portrays all the characters in her half of the play, and shifts between the stories are signaled by overlapping lines or bits of stage business. When Abigail drops a tissue in one scene, Nia picks it up in the next to wipe her mouth after throwing up in a club bathroom. Such devices also underline the commonalities between the women.

Once Nia and Abigail are diagnosed, their voices tend to fade from the stories in a stylistic move that symbolizes the invisibility of women with HIV. The latter half of the play focuses on the people each woman encounters, most of whom are unaware of their plight. Hitchhiking home from the clinic, Abigail runs into Petronella, a high school classmate, who compares the ineffectiveness and expense of AIDS drugs to cures by a "witchdoctor--sorry--traditional healer." Though Petronella is disdainful of Africans' dependence on Western aid, she's clearly chuffed by working for DATA, Bono's do-gooder organization, and can't remember how to say good-bye in Shona, her native tongue. This scene is intercut with one in which Nia's probation officer recites Oprah-isms to her: "Don't let yesterday's bad choices keep you from making good choices today," she chirps, unaware that Nia's one irrevocable bad choice has cost her the future she was counting on.

What lifts In the Continuum above boilerplate issue-oriented drama is the fearless way it attacks the Holy Grail of matrimony. Nia's cousin--knowing only that Nia is pregnant but not that she's infected--counsels her to get Darnell to marry her no matter what: "At least if you his wife, you get half, even if he divorce your ass." Later Nia learns that though Darnell's mother knew her son was HIV positive she never told Nia. "You should have kept your legs closed," she tells Nia bluntly, then tries to buy her silence with a $5,000 check. Clearly Abigail's husband, widely perceived to be a catch, has not been monogamous, though she has. A sex worker not only divulges his promiscuity but tries to recruit Abigail, reminding her how many women have been kicked out of their homes after an HIV diagnosis: "You know how these men are! He will blame you for everything, even though you got it from him." If Abigail allows herself to be kept by wealthy clients, the woman argues, she'll be able to take care of her new baby and afford the drugs. And prostitution might not be the worst option in a country where male sexual prerogatives still come before female health.

Gurira and Salter, who met in New York University's graduate acting program, are both fluid, engaging performers who know how to deliver home truths yet aren't afraid of going for big laughs in the midst of overwhelming pain. The stories here aren't entirely new, but the two performers make you care deeply about the subject. Both characters fantasize about spectacular ways to announce their HIV status to their extended families and the public, hoping to win support with threats of embarrassment or appeals to compassion. It's heartbreaking that in the face of their own shame and isolation, exacerbated by numb acceptance of the sexism in their communities, neither confronts the man responsible for her infection. Gurira and Salter's touching, vital show updates the old Act Up slogan: for these women, deference, not just silence, equals death.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): In the Continuum photo by Ruphin Coudyzer.

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