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Saturday, January 14, 2006

In the Continuum
Years ago, when I worked at a feminist magazine in D.C.—and later in the same circumstances in London—I was often entreated to attend feminist theater performances. I can’t remember seeing anything bad, but I also don’t remember being knocked out; in fact, I don’t really remember anything about any of the productions. The only concrete thing I remember about all those trips to the theater is embarrassing myself by asking for a kir royale at the bar of a London theater when the publicist offered me a drink and then having to admit that I didn’t really know what it was when the bar worker wasn’t sure how to make one.

(I should say that I was reluctant to review the pieces because the magazines I worked at were aimed at a national audience, so most of our readers wouldn’t care how good the local production of Franca Rama’s latest was. The publicists never really took that for an answer, though, and it was easier to say you’d go. This situation seems much more attractive in retrospect than it was at the time.)

It was always so tricky to write about the plays. You knew the producers weren’t inviting you to their shows for your artistic edification; they wanted reviews to generate ticket sales and to excerpt in their ads or, more likely, grant applications. If you appreciated their underpaid, underappreciated efforts, as I did, you didn’t want to pee on their parade—and I really would’ve preferred potential theater-goers to see a feminist play rather than a “mainstream” show, so I wanted to help encourage that. But now I feel like the manager who doesn’t confront an underperforming report and thus does nothing to get the worker to self-actualize. (As someone who had to be jolted into making an effort at the age of 35, let me tell you, it’s a good thing, but the boss has to take a chance on someone in whom they see potential and then has to be willing to be a bitch to get that person to really try.) Most of the time, I either didn’t write a review (I hope I wrote about that London play after I made them open a bottle of champagne for me), or I was kind.

Now I feel bad, because those “kind” critiques undermine the credibility of the many fine reviews of In the Continuum (and probably explain all those reviewers’ preambles about how appalling political theater usually is). Yes, it’s a play with a purpose—to make audiences think about the effect of HIV/AIDS on women around the world—but it’s good; really good, not “gosh, I really wish you’d go see this instead of the more mainstream, well-funded piece of entertainment a few blocks uptown” good.

The play, written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter consists of two parallel stories—Gurira tells the story of Abigail, an upper-middle-class Zimbabwean who has a catch of a husband (handsome, well-bred, and employed), a son, and a job as a newsreader on ZBC; while Salter focuses on Nia, a creative Los Angeles teenager who lives in a shelter, works at Nordstrom, and has a high-school basketball star for a boyfriend. Within 90 minutes they both learn that they’ve been deceived, realize that they’ve deceived themselves, and try to stand up and change things. The parallel structure is very tight—the whole thing is incredibly mature for two such young artists.

What’s most impressive is the subtlety of both the writing and the performances—Gurira does a great job of establishing the class signifiers that are so important to Abigail, and Salter is amazing at conjuring Nia’s circle—a social worker, her cold mother, a cousin, her boyfriend’s mother—with the slightest changes of “look” (essentially the refolding of a bandana) and a change of attitude/accent. Now, I’m looking forward to seeing Bridge & Tunnel, but judging from the Web, Sarah Jones makes use of quite a few costume props—and it’s relatively easy to distinguish between a Pakistani cab driver and a Jewish grandmother—signaling to the audience that she’s no longer the teenager, but her mother (or her cousin, or whatever) is much more of a challenge. And I was never confused.

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