'In the Continuum' gives HIV/AIDS a human face

A powerful play about the devastating impact of an HIV diagnosis on two black women has helped audiences in the United States, Zimbabwe and now South Africa give the epidemic a human face.

'In the Continuum' tells the stories of Abigail (Danai Gurira), a middle-class Zimbabwean woman who is a wife and mother working as a newsreader for Zimbabwe's government-owned television station, and Nia (Nikkole Slater), a young amateur poet from the impoverished, crime-ridden African American neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles. The two women are worlds apart but become unknowingly linked after both test positive for HIV.

They experience a similar cycle of bewildering emotions, from shock and disbelief to anger at their male partners for infecting them, followed by the fear that their men will blame and reject them.

The play's writers and performers, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Slater, collaborated on the piece during their third year in the Graduate Acting Programme at New York University. Describing her motivation for doing the play, Slater, a native of Los Angeles, recalled listening to the radio one day and learning that AIDS was the leading cause of death in African American women between the ages of 25 and 34.

"I was shocked to hear that, and I wondered why I didn't hear more about who these people were who were dying," Slater said. "Whenever we hear about HIV and AIDS in the States, we largely hear about it in the gay community, and yet they are no longer the group that is the most impacted."

Gurira grew up in Zimbabwe at a time when HIV and AIDS were already taking a toll on the people around her. "I'd get very frustrated with elements of my culture that I felt were not addressed: the issue of the high percentage of married women who contracted HIV from their husbands, and how condoned adultery was on the male side, and how that manifested in HIV statistics."

After moving to the States as a teenager, Gurira was disturbed by the general lack of knowledge about the people behind Africa's HIV statistics: "I was very keen to tell a contemporary African woman's story and to get those issues from my culture out there, and also to cause a Western audience to have to connect with those statistics and to humanise them."

While Slater and Gurira were both interested in examining the silence that shrouds the disease, they worked independently on the stories of their two main characters, only later weaving them together so they could be performed on stage.

"Any parallels were a gift," said Gurira. Yet it is the parallels that hold much of the play's impact and appeal for audiences in both the United States and Africa.

At the beginning of the play, Abigail is doing her best to fulfil societal expectations that she be a good wife and mother. After becoming pregnant with her second child, she learns she is HIV positive and the illusion of her perfect marriage is shattered. Nia's dreams of living happily ever after with her basketball-playing boyfriend also come to an abrupt end when she learns that she is both pregnant and HIV positive. By the end of the play, Abigail and Nia are still dealing with their fear of being stigmatised, and searching for the courage to disclose their condition to their families and the men who infected them.

"What we're both trying to portray at the end of the play is the great potential these women have to be heroes in their societies if they do start to speak out," said Gurira.

After a successful run in New York last year, the play was performed in Harare, where it was also well received. "In Zimbabwe they deal with this stuff [HIV] all the time - it's a part of life, but it's not dramatised much," said Gurira. "It's very surface; it's just 'AIDS kills' and condoms everywhere, but in terms of really getting into the cultural issues and unearthing those - that doesn't happen much."

The play is now in its final week at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, but after a tour of the United States, Gurira and Slater hope to bring it back to Africa.

For more information: www.markettheatre.co.za