In Robert O'Hara's surrealistic 1996 play Insurrection: Holding History, the playwright fashioned a powerfully moving drama about the African-American experience, charting a gay man's time-traveling journey to find himself by coming to terms with his family's legacy of slavery. Now in the director's chair, O'Hara tackles the 2005 Obie-winning In the Continuum, another probing exploration of social repression, finding dark humor and tragedy in the travails of black women who face oppression because of their race, class, and gender—compounded by widespread HIV/AIDS in their communities. In collaborating with O'Hara, writer-performers Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter achieve a shattering work of utmost profundity.
The touring edition of this Off-Broadway treasure is staged with artful simplicity. Set designer Peter R. Feuchtwanger, costumer Sarah Hillard, lighting designer Colin D. Young, and sound designer Lindsay Jones create a provocative milieu in which thematically linked stories play out. Each actor portrays one principal character plus others. The lives of married newscaster Abigail (Gurira), in Zimbabwe, and downtrodden and naive teenager Nia (Salter), living in a halfway house in South Central L.A., are ingeniously interwoven in a loose-form, monologue-driven structure. In a sense, this is a masterfully integrated amalgam of two solo plays. O'Hara dovetails dialogue or sound effects at key moments to underline the similarities of the two women's problems, despite the enormous geographical distance between them and the sociopolitical differences of the disparate nations in which they reside. During the course of a day, Nia and Abigail reveal they are pregnant, and each discovers she is HIV-positive. Among other distinct and superb characters portrayed by Gurira are a witch doctor, a maid, and a nurse. Salter's marvelous characterizations include Nia's stern mother, her cousin, her boyfriend's mother, and a tough social worker.
Considering the intense suffering endured by the characters, the hilarity of so many moments in the piece will likely surprise viewers. Yet that is precisely what enhances its impact. The inner strength of the beleaguered women—their ability to find elements of joy in life, despite the horrendous circumstances—bespeaks a resilience that makes this haunting piece at once harrowing and uplifting.
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Primary Stages, and the Perry Street Theatre at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Mon. 8 p.m. Nov. 29. Dark Thu. Nov. 23.) Nov. 19-Dec. 10. (213) 628-2772.