In a playwright’s note in the Playbills handed out only after the performance of “One in Two,” Donja R. Love explains that his new play was inspired by a CDC study from 2016 that found that “one in two Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.”
“This is absurd,” Love writes on learning that his HIV-positive status is so prevalent in his community, “and this play needs to reflect that.”
And so “One in Two,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Signature Theatre Center in a New Group production, offers a parade of absurdities and meta-narratives and Beckett-like, fourth-wall-breaking theatrical tricks.
The three actors, first seen loafing about the all-white bench-lined set (minimalist design by Arnulfo Maldonado), use audience applause to determine which role(s) they will take on — from the newly diagnosed Donté to Bartender/Nurse/Kinda-Ex-Boyfriend to a third character who plays Mom, a bar hookup and a swishy queen described as “Banjii C— at the Center” (among other roles).
We then alternate between short scenes from Donté’s life as a young black gay man in the city — and scenes in which the performers seem to step out of their characters to comment on the action. After all, Donté is a stand-in for Love who at one point tells the audience, “I’m writing this dreamlike play that’s set in the middle of nowhere and nothing. Or maybe a waiting room? Because that wait has so much weight to it. Ya know?”
Love has some striking and weighty things to say, particularly about how the experiences of black gay men tend to get buried beneath whiter depictions of the AIDS crisis like “The Normal Heart” and (as he calls it) “Angels in A-f–king-merica.”
Of course, those plays were written back when AIDS was both a new epidemic as well as a truly scary and lethal one. But as the nurse tells Donté early on, “With all the advancements we’ve made, this is no longer a death sentence.” And so an HIV diagnosis in 2019, though it still looms large within the LGBTQ community, doesn’t have quite so much weight to it as it all-too-recently did. Ya know?
The cast is quite strong, and Edward Mawere brought real pathos to Donté at my performance. But under Stevie Walker-Webb’s direction, the transitions between the various theatrical modes can be jarring. And the more humorous, absurdist sections are so broadly performed that they tend to undercut the cri-de-couer moments, particularly a creaky ending that doesn’t land with the heft Love clearly had in mind.