Review: “one in two” Confronts What Stories We Tell About HIV, and How We Tell Them
In “The Inheritance,” the current talk of the town gay play that claims to deal with the legacy of the AIDS crisis, all of the major characters are not only white, but are HIV-. There are two minor black characters, one of whom is HIV+, but his status is only mentioned once briefly, and the other black character similarly only has one quick mention of HIV to say “if you’re a black gay man in America, your chances of contracting HIV in your lifetime are one in two.” Once again, the line is quickly said and quickly forgotten. Other than a quick mention in an over-crowded scene, “The Inheritance” has no interest in talking about the intersections of race, sexuality, and HIV.
Thankfully, Donja R. Love does want to talk about that staggering statistic, which forms the title of his new work, “one in two,” now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center via The New Group, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Love has a vested interest in exploring this theme, since he himself is a black, gay, HIV+ man, but he also is passionate about these types of stories being told. As he writes in his program note, “it’s not just my story, but the story of a community — a community that’s in a hidden state of emergency.”
As the audience filters in, three black actors silently sit shirtless in a stark, white set (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado), a hauntingly clinical space. Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, and Edward Mawere begin the piece by picking numbers from a ticker like at a deli counter to assign the roles, but when they are unhappy with the outcome, they force the audience to decide who will play numbers one, two, and three. We don’t know what these numbers mean, nor do we know what criteria we are judging, but via applause we have to pick one of the actors. Based on the audience sonic vote and a subsequent thumb wrestle, the three actors get their roles.
This may seem like a performative piece of meta-theatre, but it is not; the script gives specific rules on how this must happen, and however the audience votes the actors must go along with it. All three actors must know all the possible roles. Think “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” but instead of memorizing a potential solo and a duet, you have to have every track in the show fully ready to go at a moment’s notice. Each of the three actors is more than up to the job, and the versatility of their performances and changeability of the play has made me want to see this show over and over again until I get all the iterations.
Unlike “Drood,” however, the role each actor has to play is a high stakes choice: unbeknownst to the audience the process decides which of the characters with be the protagonist who is HIV+, an understandably emotional role to take on. Once the actors get their roles (the performance I saw Edward Mawere played #1/Donté, the protagonist) they begin, travelling from a loaded game of duck-duck-goose, to getting diagnosed at the clinic, to a decline into severe alcoholism and depression. Throughout, the actors often break the scene a la “Slave Play” to debrief, talk about the difficulties of performing, address the audience, or to complain that they don’t want to play their part.
On the surface, the meta-theater of “one in two” bears similarities to “The Inheritance” and “A Strange Loop” — Donja R. Love wrote a play about a character, Donté, who is writing an autobiographical play. While some of this can feel redundant, what makes the framing and breaking of “one in two” so powerful is that it is used as a commentary to talk about narrative, storytelling, and the roles we are given. At a climactic moment, one of the characters refuses to kill themselves, saying they just won’t do it anymore, they don’t want this role anymore, they want to escape this narrative.
In a raw moment at the end of the play, once the numbered roles and given plot have been abandoned, one of the actors laments, “there are so many stories of people dying from AIDS, but not living with HIV. I just… I wanted to tell that story.” Love does an extraordinary job critiquing how HIV and the AIDS crisis has been represented and what stories have (and have not) been told; we have had, for example, many dramatic narratives of white martyrs dying, and now people often look at HIV as only a piece of history.
That same actor, in one of the play’s most heart-wrenching speeches, continues, “This is still an epidemic. One in two is an epidemic. But, it’s like people don’t care. Is it because I look the way I do? 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?” He might as well have ended the list with “The Inheritance.”
The play has an inescapable air of inevitability: there is a digital ticker on the back of the stage where the numbers never stop growing, and whenever the actors try to stop doing the planned performance, they are given some kind of electrical shock. Love has created an undeniably powerful, evocative piece that forces audiences to understand the seriousness of the “one in two” statistic. Moreover, he is showing us the reality behind that stat, the lives, the roles, and the narratives that black gay men are trapped in. This play not only teaches, but it urges action; it is political and polemical, but in the best way possible. After all, this is an epidemic and we need to do something about it.