one in two is strongest when it places on stage the experience of living black, queer, and HIV positive. In those moments when Donja R. Love’s new play presents, straightforwardly and without digression, life with HIV, it’s something unique. Unfortunately, the play only really does this in one scene.
That scene comes around two-thirds of the way through this world premiere, a New Group production at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Our protagonist, Donté, has recently learned he is HIV+. Spiraling and drinking heavily, Donté invites over Trade (or TRADEHUNGLIKEAHORSE_99, to use his full username). The two haltingly discuss writing as Trade rolls a joint. Then they ponder plaintively on “what’s up.” Birds. Trees. The sky. (God?) Then they fuck. Afterwards, Trade says that Donté’s sad eyes are too much of a red flag. The sex was amazing, but they won’t be seeing each other again.
It’s an unexpectedly tender and moving scene. Love both lets the audience in on Donté’s fractious psyche and paints a brief side character with careful nuance. But in an otherwise self-conscious and distancing piece, the scene proves the exception, not the rule.
one in two opens with three unnamed black men–Person on the Left, Person in the Middle and Person on the Right–awaking in a blank space: The room is white, sterile, and has no exits. (Arnulfo Maldonado is the designer.) For unexplained reasons, the three men have to draw numbers and act out a story. A vote is held by audience applause. One actor becomes #1, Donté; the others become #2 and #3, the various supporting roles. And they begin to act out Donté’s story.
Only later did I confirm that this role selection concept was real, and the three actors really are switching tracks every time. That’s hugely impressive from a performance standpoint–and indeed the three actors, Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, and Edward Mawere, are all superb. (Leland Flower played #1 at my performance.) But as staged by Stevie Walker-Webb, the vote seems artificial. Both myself and my guest, as well as multiple friends who saw the show, assumed it to be scripted. The magic of the cast’s accomplishment became clear to me later, but is completely lost in the room.
Scattered moments of Donté’s life make up most of the play, and they are a mixed bag. The three act out his diagnosis, his struggle with the news, his drinking, unprotected sex, and a descent into self-hatred. Love does often inject a light humor into Donté’s dark journey, as in the scene with Trade. The playwright’s wit is also evident in two scenes at a support group, which hilariously play a muted Donté off Banjii Cunt at the Center and Married Man at the Center, who have both achieved a peace with their diagnosis that Donté can’t find.
Most of what we see, though, feels cliched: A seen-it-all nurse who’s here to talk some sense into you. A loving but clueless mother who natters away while missing her child’s decline. Though his scene with Trade is lovely, when Donté misleads Trade about his status, it hits an ugly note. I’m not suggesting this stuff isn’t a reality for one or many people. Some truths can still play on stage as tired cliche, and an HIV+ man knowingly endangering his partners hits that way.
As a side note: This criticism may reflect a desire on my part to see gay sex portrayed differently on stage. Love’s script specifies that when Donté and Trade fuck, “for what feels like forever,” as a stage direction reads, it is long and amazing for both of them. Walker-Webb sort of follows this, but adds flashing stage lights and thumping music that suggest darkness and danger. I would love to stop seeing gay sex presented on stage in this manner. Can’t it ever just be great sex?
Regardless, if Donté’s story were the only focus of Love’s play, he might have dug deeper into some of these thinner elements. Instead, Donté’s story abruptly ends, and the play returns to the framing device and the white room. Though we never learned much about Left, Middle, and Right, now we’re belatedly asked to care about them. Well, sort of. Really Love is using them to spell out his play’s message, at great length and with little trust in the audience to fill in the gaps themselves.
In its frustrating final turn, which I won’t entirely spoil, one in two becomes a rant about theater not telling varied, rich stories about gay men living with HIV–something this play has itself entirely neglected to do. I wish it had, as in the moments when Love pauses to let his characters speak, it’s clear how powerful that story could have been. Hopefully next time, Love will spend less time telling us what stories need telling, and more time just telling them.