One in Two on off-Broadway Review: Claiming Space for Black Queer Men With HIV
Three black men are introduced in morose anonymity. As you enter the theatre, three black men sit and idle in the limbo-esque white sparsity of a waiting room. Since Playbills are withheld until the end of the show, anyone coming in blind to Donja R. Love’s One in Two, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, will not know their names right away. But the nameless are played by Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, and Edward Mawere.
Those nameless men will acquire a number from 1 to 3. The audience decides on the leading character through an applause contest. On other days, another man may embody the “Number 1” or the supporting roles of Number 2 and Number 3.
There are more “Numbers” as well, but they are out of sight. Floating above is a time counter racking up numbers, seemingly toward the infinite. Sometimes we easily forget its presence, sometimes it ominously beeps, but the numbers surge up. As Donté faces his day-in-the-life with HIV, the audience grows to understand it is counting the ones who didn’t survive.
On my matinee, the audience — perhaps my hands as well, although I strived to clap for them equally — decided that the tender-eyed and soft-spoken Mawere was Number 1, the main character to follow throughout. Dobson ends up becoming Number 2 and Fowler as Number 3, swapping through various roles. While the actors roused the audience into a fun momentum during the applause contest, the random selection also struck me as deliberately disconcerting. It didn’t seem fair that the runner-ups’ stories sink into afterthoughts, despite knowing that the actors have their chance at being the centerstage hero on other showings.
Number 1 eventually acquires a story and a name, Donté, who you’ll discover is a playwright and facing an HIV diagnosis not unlike the real Love. While HIV is more manageable than it was during the 1960s AIDS epidemic, black men like Love and his fictional stand-in still struggle with stigma and health complications.
Donté story begins in the doctor’s office. He faces having to tell his mother and an ex-lover about his diagnosis. His medication ends up having unpleasant side-effects that ruin his function to the point where he stops taking them. Stigma haunts his attempt to find intimacy with other black men. As the beginning will tell you, Donté is fated to commit suicide.
Rotating around the fourth-was breaking, a streamlined story, and disruption of the story, Love grapples with narrative dilemmas about portraying black pain and has plenty to say about the scare centralization of black queer men’s struggles on stage. Loud and clear, Normal Heart and Angels in America (“Angels in A-f–king-merica”) are name-dropped as prominent plays that queer black men with HIV/AIDS will never lead (I imagine Love’s script would have name-dropped Inheritance, another play about (mostly white) men surviving AIDS and HIV, on his list of white-centric plays).
In a heartbreaking and cathartic meta-climax, the men debate about whether they should will Donté to die or perhaps will him a happy ending. Love considers who gets left out, as we discover that Number 2 has a story as well, one that is and isn’t like Number 1’s story, doesn’t dominate the running time, but has as much weight. After all, survivors often relate to someone else’s narrative, while understanding it would never be anexact match and have their own divergence.
Walker-Webb’s direction can jar when swerving from humor to moroseness, from fourth-wall awareness to narrative straightforwardness, but even those quibbles don’t dilute the rage, frustration, sorrow, and resolve. Love fights for the right for gay black men to live in their stories while revering those who are lost. Black men living with HIV — not dying of — should be more than enough to care about their lives. But the elliptical closure pauses on living black man staring at the counter of nameless casualties, the stories of black lives that were never told.
One in Two is now playing at the Signature Theatre until January 12th, 2020. For more information, visit: https://thenewgroup.org/production/one-in-two/