"Love between a man and a woman - it seems to end in death here," says one Zimbabwean character with a shrug of resignation in the stunning, vital two-woman play "In the Continuum," newly transferred from Primary Stages' uptown berth at 59E59 to the Perry Street Theatre in the Village.
That's just about the only moment of outright surrender in this otherwise unflinching, often witheringly funny multicharacter study of a pair of black women with HIV/AIDS, neither of whom fades quietly into anonymous victimhood. As with a previous generation of plays documenting AIDS' toll on gay men and their families, "In the Continuum" is less about the medical than the social fallout of a virus still cursed by the unholy trinity of ignorance, shame and death. Sound grim? It's also thrilling, exhilarating and utterly disarming.
Nia (Nikkole Salter) is a poor 19-year-old in South Central Los Angeles whose hazy post-high-school plans more or less center on her boyfriend, Darnell, a rising basketball star with college recruiters beating down his door. Abigail (Danai Gurira), a married, middle-class professional in Harare, Zimbabwe, has ambitions beyond reading moldy propaganda on the government-run TV channel. She talks hopefully of CNN giving her a call, and of raising a son who could be "the next Kofi Annan, or the next Bill Gates - why not?"
We spend the rest of the play essentially learning the many reasons why not - and the stillbirth of dreams is the least of the women's troubles. So how does "In the Continuum" manage to be as uplifting as it is disturbing?
For one, there's the pure joy Salter and Gurira bring to their multiple roles, as Nia and Abigail run a gauntlet of friends, relatives, well-meaning advisers and not-so-well-meaning medical professionals. Both are powerhouse actors. Salter, who calls to mind Anna Deavere Smith, is particularly searing as Nia's no-nonsense mother, while the slim, tightly coiled Gurira brings infinitesimal shadings to an unblinking slow-burn stare.
Salter and Gurira also wrote the show. Together they have woven a remarkably seamless dual-solo show. Its thematic intersections and resonant transitions are handled with dancelike clarity by director Robert O'Hara. While Salter never loses track of Nia's urgency or despair, some of Gurira's interlocutors come off as amalgams of African voices rather than as individual people.
The confused, distraught Abigail has one of the show's most memorable scenes: Trying to a hail a cab on a dusty city street, she testily shoos away aggressive street urchins while chatting with her own son on her cell phone. "Where are your parents?" she finally snaps at the children, then stops short, horrified - she suddenly knows exactly where those parents have gone, and where, but for the grace of protease inhibitors, she might go, too.
Statistics about the AIDS pandemic in Africa, or about the dramatically rising rates of infection among African-American women, are consistently sobering. But next to finely calibrated dramatic moments (of which this extraordinary play is full), statistics seem crude instruments for measuring the human toll of this ongoing plague. The theater, used this wisely and this well, speaks louder and penetrates deeper.