In ‘one in two,’ HIV-positive men are waiting for their fellow humans to care
An epidemic is raging among black queer men. Playwright Donja R. Love demands we do something.
In the final act of of one in two, a new play about being black, queer, and struggling with an HIV diagnosis, one of the the play’s three characters utters a line that is part directive and part plea: “Don’t be far away.”
The character, identified as #2, is talking about the way the stigma of HIV creates distance, both intentionally and unintentionally, when he reveals that he has the virus that causes AIDS. Another character, #1, shudders, and #2 says, “Don’t do that.”
#1: “Don’t do what?”
#2: “That thing you just did with your body. People always do that whenever someone just mentions … It’s like they’re saying, ‘Aw, poor thing, I’m so sorry for you.’ It’s like their words are so close, but their bodies let me know they’re so far away or want to be. So don’t do that. Don’t be far away.”
That exchange is at the heart of playwright Donja R. Love’s powerful work, which features three black queer men who are stuck in a waiting room. Their only company is three large flat-screens that accommodate a number, which starts with “1” and then grows at a rapid, unceasing pace for the duration of the show, audibly ticking along in the background as it climbs into the millions.
Alienated and isolated in Arnulfo Maldonado’s angular, all-white set, the three men at first appear to be stuck in a waiting room for the afterlife. They’re all wearing grey sweatpants. They’re all barefoot and shirtless.
It becomes apparent that they aren’t waiting to be called up or sent down. They’re waiting for their countrymen and families to start giving a damn about an invisible epidemic. It is a wait, Love writes, that has “too much weight to it.”
In 2016, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report about HIV among African Americans that concluded that, if infection rates persisted, one in two black gay and bisexual men would be at risk for contracting HIV in their lifetimes. That statistic supplies the name for one in two, a play that is personal to Love in the same way that The Normal Heart was personal to ACT UP co-founder Larry Kramer, and Angels in America to Tony Kushner. Like #1, Love lives with HIV, and after his diagnosis, he struggled with alcohol addiction, depression, and thoughts of suicide.
Love constructed one in two with a deliberate malleability baked in, the better to capture the audience’s sympathy and attention. All three actors in the production, Jamyl Dobson, Edward Mawere, and Leland Fowler, can play #1, #2, or #3, depending on the whims of the audience. They present themselves at the outset of the story and ask the audience to distinguish, by applause, who will play #1. (At this point, the audience has no idea what #1 will have to do.) The decision of who will play #2 and #3 is then determined with a game of rock, paper, scissors. I went to two performances in hopes of seeing how the work changed with a different actor playing the role of #1, who is later identified as Donté. Both times, the audience chose Mawere.
The audience then, is treated to the story of #1’s diagnosis and his subsequent reaction. In an effort to free themselves from a void of apathy and complacence, #1, #2, and #3 decide to act out #1’s story. But there’s also a meta-narrative of how telling this story over and over affects the individuals who are telling it. (The men, for their own sakes, and that of the audience, institute a safe word: “N—aaaaaaa.” The obligatory seven “a’s” and the explanation of them are one of the play’s many unexpected instances of genuine mirth.)
Dobson, Maware, and Fowler each play multiple characters from #1’s life. Dobson is especially charming when playing a lively and shameless ball queen who twerks to Megan Thee Stallion, and there’s a tangible, soft-spoken tenderness in his rendering of #1’s mother. Mawere’s presence in the role of number #1 gives additional layers to the words. #1, when played by Maware, is fat, black, and gay, and on stage, it’s completely normal for him to be loved and romanced, lustful and messy, and treated with humanity and compassion. Those moments come in scenes with Fowler, who plays #3/Kinda-Ex-Boyfriend. I kept waiting for some cruel barb to be directed at Mawere-as-#1, and mercifully, it never materialized. The judgy unkindness that’s often directed at fat, queer, fey men simply doesn’t exist here.
Director Stevie Walker-Webb helps shape a complicated script into a tale the deftly dances between levity, fatal seriousness, and childhood innocence. Under his eye, a lifetime of experiences and observations that are often marginalized become recognizable as common experiences in black queer life. In his 2018 memoir and essay collection I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, writer Michael Arceneaux revealed on how an early fear of AIDS and sex followed him throughout his childhood and adult life and influenced the way he thought about himself and his sexuality.
“When people talk about the HIV/AIDS crisis, they tend to talk about it as if it’s like past tense, particularly for queer men,” Arceneaux said in an interview for the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money. “I am black, so black and Latinx men have really high rates, as do black women, but it they — it’s — it’s, it’s overwhelmingly high for people like me and my dating pool is a lot smaller as a result. So it’s very much still a crisis for me and I, you know, I’ve, I’ve quietly seen many people drop off and people still don’t talk about it.”
One in two is a staged manifestation of similar troubles and anxieties. Love and Walker-Webb illustrate how childhood innocence gets stolen and how that loss haunts queer men as adults. With its games of duck, duck, goose and I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, one in two astutely calls forth that brief window when black boys can be their queer selves, before others start to remark about how they’re “different” or “funny,” before they learn to protectively stifle parts of themselves, before they realize that who they’re attracted to is considered wrong, or grotesque, or ungodly. Before they start to hear suggestions that an HIV epidemic is their punishment for same-sex attraction.
As Love presents one in two as a play that should live alongside works such as The Normal Heart and Angels in America — which he name-checks — he includes responses to what he sees as probable critiques of his work. It’s almost as though he read critic Frank Rich on the 1985 Public Theater debut of The Normal Heart:
“Although Mr. Kramer’s theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience, there can be little doubt that ”The Normal Heart” is the most outspoken play around — or that it speaks up about a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency,” Rich wrote.
So the three characters frequently break the fourth wall. For example, when #1 asks why his character is being given a name, #3 points to the audience and responds, “Because, ummm, we’re telling a story. Duh. And they need an easily identifiable protagonist to follow, to help them make sense of an already amorphous, challenging, and borderline nonexistent a– plot. Plus, I like the name Donté.”
Amorphous indeed — the play never reveals how #1 survives an attempt to take his own life. But what it lacks in formal structure, one in two more than makes up for it with passion, wit, and most of all, love for the black men all around us, who desperately need us to stop being so far away.
One in Two runs through Jan. 12, 2020 at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York.