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one in two

Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, Edward Malwere  photos by Monique Carbon 

one in two 

                                            By Ron Cohen 


One in two, the title of this new Off-Broadway play, a production of The New Group, refers to a fearsome statistic. As the playwright Donja R. Love tells us right off in a program insert: A study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention projects that “one in two Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.”


While the AIDS crisis has receded into the background of our ever-more-crowded everyday news cycle, Love’s play throws a fierce spotlight onto the continuing crisis among black gay men. His program insert relates that he started writing the play at the end of 2018 when he was reaching the 10th year of being HIV+, filled with depression and suicidal thoughts. His play has the urgency of a cathartic confessional, describing the emotional upheaval the disease can ignite in the already well-tested psyche of the black American male. It has its own painful specificity, making it quite different from other seminal plays about AIDS.


Under the inspired direction of Stevie Walker-Webb, it does so in its own unique exhilarating manner, borrowing some of the tropes of experimental theatre pulling in the audience with multi-layered storytelling.


On a semi-darkened stage, the three actors – Jeremy Dobson, Leland Fowler and Edward Mawere – wait in what appears to be a pristine white waiting room for the play to begin. When the lights come up, the actors pull stubs from a ticket dispenser in a what appears to be a familiar routine to determine what roles they will play this performance. But then they decide to let audience response decide which actor will play the central role of #1. The other two actors then divvy up the other two roles -- #2 and #3, consisting of multiple characters – with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.


edward malwere, jamyl dobson, leland  fowler


And the personal history of #1, presumably the playwright, dubbed here Dante, begins. At first the three actors cavort as kids, with more than a passing interest in each other’s genitals. It’s playful with a naivete that is yet somehow foreboding.


leland fowler, edward malwere


As the script shifts to adulthood, we witness Dante meeting up at a bar with various guys,  revealing to his boyfriend that he’s infected, his appointments at an AIDS clinic with a determinedly helpful but distant nurse, fractious meetings at a support group, painful conversations with his loving mother, sieges of drunkenness and anonymous sex to relieve the shame and self-hatred.


The vignettes are pungent and forceful, sometimes genuinely poetic and occasionally shot through with humor, a touch of the absurd. Finally, as the flow of scenes reaches its grimmest point, the actors break from their assigned characters. They don’t want the narrative to continue, even as large digital panels at the back of the set continue to count an ever-climbing number of black men infected. And the actors talk about their own situations with AIDS, as they gaze at the rising tally, and what sets one in two apart from other major plays about AIDS is made crystal clear.


“One in two is an epidemic,” says one of the actors. “But it’s like people don’t care. Is it because I look the way I do? My story isn’t important because I don’t look like I could’ve been in The Normal Heart or Angels in A-fucking-merica? Is that it? Well… I just wish everyone would stop staring at me, stop ‘wishing me well’ and do something. Anything.”


Yes, one in two is a message play, a call for action with that aforementioned program insert containing a substantial list of AIDS service organizations. Or as Love puts it, in his own tangy way, “resources to help us ‘do something’—to help us make the CDC’s projected statistic for us Black queer and bi folx nonexistent – to help end this epidemic and save our community.”


While message plays are often disparaged (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union, goes the old saying…anybody remember Western Union?), one in two makes for galvanizing theater. The three actors are terrific, giving each scene indelible impact, while also projecting the seeming spontaneity Love’s script demands. The audience device also means that all three actors must be ready to take on any of the three roles, adding to the impressiveness of their work on view.


At the performance attended, Leland Fowler took on the role of #1, or Dante, carrying the man to the depths of despair, while imbuing that despair with an appealing humanity, even a hint of nobility. Jamyl Dobson and Edward Mawere brought immediate credibility to the panoply of other characters, rising to explosive force when needed.  


Arnulfo Maldonado’s stark but handsome set design, Cha See’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound heighten the ambiance artfully, while Andy Jean’s costume pieces, pulled out from drawers ensconced in the set, are smartly and succinctly character-defining.


It all makes for urgent, courageous and meaningful theatre. 

Review posted December 2019
Off-Broadway play
Playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Playing until January 12