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Donja R. Love discusses his "super personal" world premiere
According to a recent CDC fact sheet, if current trends persist, one in two African-American gay or bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV. That statistic is a stark reminder that the epidemic is far from over, especially in the black community. Yet on stage, lauded plays about HIV/AIDS have focused mainly on the experiences of white men. From classics such as The Normal Heart and Angels in America, to the recently opened The Inheritance, white characters dominate the narrative while queer men of color remain on the periphery, usually playing caretakers or token friends.
Black queer playwright Donja R. Love acknowledges that when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2008, he did find comfort in white-centric AIDS plays because they were "stories of people who had gone through what I was going through. And Tony Kushner wrote the hell out of Angels!" But soon he started wondering, why don't any of these characters look like me? "Not seeing myself reflected, I realized I had to write worlds where I saw myself," he says.
With one in two, currently at the Pershing Square Signature Center produced by The New Group, Love presents a tale about characters who are thrice marginalized as black, gay and positive. Three nameless men (Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, and Edward Mawere) are trapped in a waiting room where they're forced to reenact the diagnosis and down spiral of a playwright named Donté ad nauseam. The audience chooses who plays the part by applause, which means all three actors are prepared to take on the role (or a variety of supporting characters) at any performance. It's an absurd setup for a powerful journey that's also surprisingly funny and unabashedly political.
Love began writing one in two on his iPhone's Notes app last year as a way of grappling with the intense feelings sparked by the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis. As the milestone approached, he experienced a depression that made it hard for him to leave his bed or even reach for his laptop. "It felt safer for me to write a play in my phone because I always have it with me," he explains, though he confesses that initially, it was a script he didn't want anyone to see. Even now he often asks himself, "Donja, what did you do?" he says, laughing.
"A lot of this play is super personal," he admits. "It would be easier for people to ask me what isn't true in the play than for people to ask me what is true—'cause I would have a shorter list of what isn't!"
While Donté's journey is often harrowing, Love knew it was important to include humorous moments and secondary HIV-positive characters who were not just living, but thriving. "When I was first diagnosed, all I could think of was death," he recalls. Writing his Love* Plays trilogy (Sugar in Our Wounds at Manhattan Theatre Club, Fireflies at Atlantic Theater Company, and the as-yet unproduced In the Middle) helped him remember the joy of living. Like those other works, one in two challenges the notion that black characters only exist on stage to show suffering or to teach white audiences a lesson.
"When I'm with my friends who are HIV positive, we're laughing, we're having a good old kiki," he says. "We're talking about boys, we're talking about this, we're talking about that, and if it is a sorrowful conversation, it's about the month's rent or, 'This boy is getting on my nerves,'" he says. It's never, "'Oh my gosh, HIV got me down.' HIV is not at the forefront of our lives."
Top image: Jamyl Dobson and Edward Mawere in one in two. Photos by Monique Carboni.