Playwright Donja R. Love (“Sugar in Our Wounds”) has a healthy obsession with numbers. The title of his urgent, provocative drama, “One in Two,” refers to a little-known yet alarming statistic from a 2016 CDC study projecting that one in two Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
Love, who is Black and has wrestled with the stigma of being HIV-positive for more than a decade, deemed this figure so shocking, so ludicrous, he decided to create an absurdist drama about it. The piece draws not only from his own deeply personal story but also experiences of others in his community.
We can detect shades of Beckett, for sure. Three young, queer Black men are in a state of suspended animation, a kind of purgatory, as they sit in a health clinic waiting room listening for their number to be called. They are, as you may have guessed, wracked with dread awaiting results of their HIV tests.
“I am not a number!” one of them snarls.
The remainder of the play illustrates, with caustic humor and grace, just how dehumanizing being poz can be for this often neglected segment of the population.
Instead of having names, the men are known as Number One, Number Two, or Number Three, based on the level of audience applause at the top of the play. They even don shirts emblazoned with their number so we can keep track. This decision is fairly random, however, since we know zilch about these guys and have no basis for clapping louder or softer. Perhaps this is intended to echo the arbitrary aspect of acquiring HIV.
In the performance I saw, the audience chose actor Edward Mawere to portray Number One (aka Donté) who is HIV-positive. Jamyl Dobson played the role of Number Two and Leland Fowler was Number Three. Donté appears to be a stand-in for the playwright himself.
In this surreal, nightmarish realm, the three men act out fraught scenarios from Donté’s life — HIV disclosure to his ex-boyfriend and to his mother, sloppy nights alone in gay bars, attending an HIV support group, coping with debilitating side effects from meds, and wild hookups with dudes with screen handles like TRADEHUNGLIKEAHORSE_99.
In one of the more affecting scenes, Donté is dumbstruck upon hearing that he indeed has contracted HIV, despite the nurse’s reassurance: “You can get through this. Your status will not be the most interesting thing about you.” Those words were not enough to calm his shame and self-loathing.
While all the performances are first-rate, I couldn’t help but marvel at the versatility of Dobson, who expertly juggled supporting roles such as Donté’s loving Mom, the hung hookup, and “Banjii Cunt at the Center.” Fowler did a fine job of tackling secondary roles like “Kinda Ex-Boyfriend” with panache.
Which is even more astounding when you realize that these actors must master every role and every line of dialogue. Remember, the roles rotate each night based on the whim of the audience.
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, “One in Two” offers a daring take on a subject rarely seen on a mainstream stage. As Number One states, “There are so many stories of people dying from AIDS, but not living with HIV.”
Arnulfo Maldonado has created an ideal backdrop for this absurdist enterprise. It’s an all-white “black box” which looks more like a bathhouse steam room than a waiting room, especially at the start when the men silently lounge around shirtless. The set contains hidden drawers filled with props and extensions that morph into a liquor bar or a bed.
The set is topped by screens that display large numbers increasing during the course of the 90-minute piece. These racing digits not only signify the growing cases of HIV diagnoses among Black queer men, they also suggest that time marches on. The message couldn’t be clearer — action must be taken to blunt this hidden epidemic. And the time is right now.
ONE IN TWO | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 12: Sun., Tue.- Fri. & Dec. 23 & 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.; no performances Dec. 24-25, 31 & Jan.1 | $43-$123 at thenewgroup.org | Ninety mins., with no intermission