Nikkole Salter (front) and Danai Gurira (rear) perform their two-woman show, In the Continuum, a play about women in Africa and the U.S. infected with HIV.
AIDS most overlooked victims gain an audience
By Rachel Breitman
Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira giggle sheepishly in the final scene of their play In the Continuum, in which they star as an American teen and an African newscaster who find out that they are both HIV-positive. As they attempt to confront the men who infected them, each is unable to speak the words that could stop the disease from continuing to spread. The play ends with their nervous laughter, and then silence.
Offstage Salter, 26, and Gurira, 27, rarely find themselves at a loss for words as they discuss the show that is gaining a following off-Broadway. It recently finished a two-month run at a midtown theater and is slated to open at the Perry Street Theater November 18th.
Unlike previous dramatic depictions of AIDS, like Angels in America, In the Continuum looks exclusively through the eyes of women of color. In the play, Abigail (Gurira) is an upwardly mobile African woman who attended the best schools, married a successful man, and hopes for a career in international journalism. Nia (Salter) is a down-on-her-luck nineteen-year-old living at a youth home in South Central Los Angeles.
The actresses wrote and perform all of the shows characters, from a street-smart transvestite cousin to an African witch doctor, nurse, and a maid. Salter pinches her nose and pushes her glasses down to become Patti, the painfully un-hip teen counselor, who lectures Nia about self-empowerment and making proper choices, oblivious to the girls burdens. Gurira struts across the stage as a sex worker who tells Abigail that the only way to support herself and buy the black market medication is to leave her philandering husband and find work as a kept woman.
The interplay between the two is a wonder, said Tony Award-winning actress Marian Seldes, one of a growing crew of stars who were left awestruck by the play. It makes you realize that the one character that the actress is playing represents hundreds and hundreds of people.
As Gurira and Salter shift seamlessly from role to rolewith the primary costume change being the placement of the colored sash each wearsthey embody a broad array of women touched in some way by the disease.
Though only in their twenties, they are old pros at shifting personas, on and off-stage. Gurira has spent her life traveling between continents. Born in America to African parents who were educated in the West, she was raised in Zimbabwe and attended college in Minnesota at Macalester, where she studied social psychology. A semester studying abroad in South Africa instilled in her the desire to use theater to give voice to African perspectives, and its harsh realities. In Zimbabwe, women account for 58% of all HIV infections between the ages of 15-49. (In the U.S., half of all teenagers infected with HIV are women.)
Its kind of schizo with the two worlds you have to embody, says Gurira, her melodic African lilt replaced by clipped American slang, as she describes moving between a western point of view and traditional African social mores.
But I know how to meld in there, and I never leave for too long. I speak in Shona, know how to show a sign of respect to the guy who is filling my gas tank. I know how to let my Rs drop and lose that sharp American twang.
Salter also describes trying to fit in with a diverse group of peers. At Los Angeles Palisades High School, she was one of a few African American students who took all honors classes.
I never connected to the kids in the community, said Salter. I wasnt cool enough for them, so I was an observer. She put this skill to use early, after deciding to act at age eight. Parts in community theater led to an agent and roles on television shows like Moesha, but it wasnt until she started taking theater classes at Howard University that she realized that acting might be more than a hobby.
In late 2003 she and Gurira, then students in an MFA program at NYU, first discussed the idea of a play about the lives of several African American women. Gurira had already researched statistics about African women with AIDS, examined case studies, and watched taped testimonials.
They always talked about creating original material, said Antoinette LaVecchia, an actress and professor at NYU. They both said, We each have a one-woman show, and I said, that is not a one-woman show, it is a two-woman show. The first draft of In the Continuum took only three weeks to write.
After graduating, they performed the play at the United Nations, where they received a Global Tolerance Award. Since the play opened in September, they have done benefit performances for The HIV Law Project and Womens HIV Collaborative of New York and for teens from several New York City high schools.
As the play has developed and changed, the actresses have grown closer as friends and colleagues.
Nikkole and Danai really have a connection to each other, after developing the play, giving feedback, and exchanging ideas, said their director, Robert OHara. He joined them in the summer of 2005 to help make each story more linear and further develop certain characters.
While details may have been tweaked, the storyline remains close to their original idea.
It was like we had made a soup and over time we were plucking and identifying more and more items from it, said Salter, as she pantomimes mixing a pot.
Though confident that they have got the right recipe, Salter and Gurira hope that their plays honest portrayal of taboo topics will continue to stir things up in the theater community.