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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the legacies of the Center Theatre Group under founder Gordon Davidson was its tradition of staging plays with a political agenda--in particular, work that promoted feminism, multiculturalism, or simply turned the theater into a big community healing session. The upside of this tendency was that Los Angeles became a key part in the development of playwrights like Tony Kushner and August Wilson, artists whose work transcended its progressive ideology. The downside was that every few months we would have to sit through tedious works with large "kum-bi-yah" quotients and little dramatic value.

This season, the show In the Continuum has all the hallmarks of that latter brand of theater. Looking very much like a vestige from the Davidson era, In the Continuum is a two-woman rant, with little stagecraft and lots of political and social importance.

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In the Continuum (directed by Robert O'Hara) weaves together the stories of two women who live continents apart, but are brought together karmicaly through one tragic event. The authors' influence seems to be Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. In depicting the connection between one woman in Zimbabwe and another in here South Central Los Angeles, the show could be titled "The Double Life of Moniqua."

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But the play's Sliding Doors-like structure is simply a framing device. Only occasionally enhancing the narratives of the two women, it serves mainly to break up the two monologues and turn them into a sort of fugue. Perhaps more, it allows each of the two actors, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter--who speak only to the audience and never to each other--a chance to take a breath after each emotional scene.

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Gurira plays Abigail Muramby a middle-class news anchor in Zimbabwe. Salter plays Nia James, a troubled 19 year-old from the ghetto with a chance to go to college due to her proficiency writing Haiku. Both actors also play a host of other characters who Nia and Abigail encounter on the fateful day when each woman learns she is HIV positive.

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The reason In the Continuum (which played off-Broadway last year and is now touring the country) rises well above a mere AIDS awareness polemic is the strength and conviction of these two actresses. Despite the many difficult roles, there is hardly a false note in the show. Abigail and Nia may or may not be based on real-life women, but on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater, both characters come to life in front of the audience's eyes. There are times when it is hard to imagine you aren't in a restroom, clinic or hospital waiting room overhearing these women's' painful confessions and conversations .

Gurira and Salter met in NYU's Graduate Acting Program and in many ways In the Continuum feels like an actor's showcase. Their play is effective, but at times--like the finale, which is self-consciously poetic--one can see the writers' hands at work.

Luckily, the stories they share have the ring of truth. The characters and situations are carefully observed and rendered with an honesty that makes no one a pure victim or scoundrel. All of the people one encounters in Continuum are flawed, and primarily looking out for themselves; but the characters also quietly yearn to connect with other people.

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There are brief moments that speak to humankind's interconnectedness--not to mention flashes that profoundly show the power of one individual's story to force people to think about society as a whole. Most of the time though, In the Continuum is a prosaic, but engaging odyssey into the underworld of a modern woman's darkest fears. The stories told are often bleak, but never does the show wallow in self-pity or cheapen itself with hollow "you-go-girl" platitudes. In the Continuum relies heavily on performance--it will not likely have the same impact on the page--but the mouths and motions of its two creators speak volumes about the capacity of human suffering and the need for live, intimate theater to tell tragic stories in a meaningful fashion.

In the Continuum finishes its run this weekend with six performances, tonight until Sunday, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


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