Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter were students at New York University's graduate acting program when, unbeknownst to each other, both were working on plays about AIDS and its effect on black women, albeit in very different parts of the world. Gurira's story was set in Zimbabwe, where she grew up from the age of five, while Salter's piece was set in her native Los Angeles. A teacher suggested they get together and turn their two plays into one.
Their joint effort came to be known as In the Continuum, and what began as a school project has become an international hit. The play was produced by New York's Primary Stages in September 2005, and critics raved. The play, with Gurira and Salter performing the parts they created, then transferred to the Perry Street Theatre for a 13-week run. In April, Gurira and Salter began a six-week tour that took them to Zimbabwe and South Africa. That tour resumes August 25 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In the Continuum has undergone a significant metamorphosis since it was first done at N.Y.U. The actor-playwrights continued to develop the play after graduation, and were particularly receptive to suggestions from Robert O'Hara, who signed on as director for the Primary Stages production. "I was blown away the very first time I saw the piece," says O'Hara. "But it wasn't fully formed. There was no crossover; it was two women doing one-woman plays stuck together. We started working together in June 2005, and I think it was a relief to them because they didn't have to be writer and creator and director. We literally took it apart scene by scene, and I began to help them form a play."
Abigail and Nia, the play's protagonists, are literally and figuratively from different worlds and, on the surface at least, seem to have little in common. Abigail, played by Gurira, is an upwardly mobile newscaster in Zimbabwe, married to an accountant and pregnant with their second child. Salter's Nia, from South Central Los Angeles, is pregnant, too, but she's an unmarried teenager without any prospect of extricating herself from her surroundings. Yet the two women share more than pregnancy, more than a disease. When Abigail speaks of her hopes for the future, her desires echo the so-called American Dream, while Nia sometimes sounds as if she's from a Third World country. Abigail's husband cheats on her, and Nia has no hope of marrying the father of her child, a highly recruited high school basketball player. "These two people can see the same story, and there is a continuum of human struggle, of human battle against disease," says O'Hara, "and race plays into it. One day we were sitting around, and I said, 'You know what would be interesting? If, in Africa, as Abigail is given a diagnosis, we see Nia's reaction.' It's one of the most powerful and theatrical moments of the play, because we don't actually have the two women talking to each other. But you have a direct link to someone being given information on one continent, and the person on the other reacting to it."
Audiences have been extremely moved by In the Continuum. "I think that neither Danai nor Nikkole fully realize the effect the play has had," says O'Hara. "They may never know or understand how deeply it touches people."