Review: Counting on Compassion in ‘one in two’

Donja R. Love’s powerful play balances tenderness and fury to explore how H.I.V. has become a ”hidden emergency” in the black community. 

By Laura Collins-Hughes

Dec. 10, 2019

NYT Critic’s Pick

Playwriting is often an act of bravery. Sometimes it’s a form of self-preservation as well.

Late last year, when Donja R. Love began his extraordinary new play “one in two,” he was too depressed to get out of bed. Engulfed by shame over being H.I.V. positive, trying to write his way through that emotion nearly a decade after the diagnosis, he grabbed the implement closest to hand and typed the script into his phone. His first, vulnerable impulse was to leave it there — this work of art that laid him bare.

I can’t stop thinking about what would have been lost if Love hadn’t mustered his courage. Because with a whip-smart New Group production by Stevie Walker-Webb at the Pershing Square Signature Center, “one in two” has entered the world in a state of quiet glory, equal parts laughter and pain.

Defiantly life-embracing, it’s a call to action over what Love describes as “a hidden state of emergency” in his own community: the risk, projected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that one in two black men who have sex with other men will receive a diagnosis of H.I.V.

Numbers are ever-present in “one in two,” even before we step into the theater. Just outside the entrance from the lobby, so unobtrusive that you might walk past it, is the kind of ticket dispenser you’d find at a deli counter. We’re invited to take a number, just as the characters in the play will do.

But when we first lay eyes on them, before the performance begins, they are merely waiting. Barefoot, shirtless, black, they sit on benches in a spare white space that could be a steam room, while ambient music filters through. Above the three men, three high windows glow with a soft light — except that they’re not windows, they’re screens, and once the play starts, they display a count that climbs ever higher, eventually into the millions.

Numbers like that are too abstract to grasp, but three is easy, and the three actors here form an impeccably tight ensemble. When they ask the audience, early on, to clap for whichever one of them we want to play the character they call Number One, it’s a pretty random vote — randomness being a theme in “one in two.”

We don’t really know who we’re casting, or for what, but it turns out to be the starring role: a young man named Donté, who is left feeling isolated and ostracized after he tests positive. At the performance I saw, he was played with an endearing bashfulness by Edward Mawere, making a beautiful Off-Broadway debut.

Adding such an element of chance isn’t a new idea (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody” did something similar), but when it’s successful, as it is here, it’s impressive, since each of these performers has to know all of the parts. The other actors, Jamyl Dobson and Leland Fowler, play multiple roles with precision and restraint.

“All I do is cry,” Donté tells the support group he only fitfully attends. “The one thing that helps, though, is writing. I’m a playwright, or at least I wanted to be. I’m writing this dreamlike play that’s set in the middle of nowhere and nothing. Or maybe a waiting room?”

Miles different in style and form from Love’s previous Off Broadway plays, “Fireflies” and “Sugar in Our Wounds,” “one in two” is a creative leap forward. And Walker-Webb, who was such a sure hand with the terrific “Ain’t No Mo’” at the Public Theater last spring, is once again in his element here. He keeps the tone calm and unadorned for the most part. When fury erupts, it does so with power and clarity.

Contained by Arnulfo Maldonado’s clever set, “one in two” takes place in that waiting room, but also in the bar where Donté muffles his pain with alcohol; in the bedroom where he tries to obliterate loneliness with sex; and in the medical office where a nurse draws blood and administers kindness. (The institutional green of Cha See’s lighting for those scenes is particularly fine.)

The play also leaps sweetly into childhood, the actors transforming into little boys so adorably guileless that one has named his penis Rugrats, another after the Power Rangers.

Amid these rapid shifts, laughter is never far away. Neither is sadness or fear, and hopelessness certainly threatens — and not only because that’s something Love suggests, in a program note, that he has felt. As some of his characters argue, our culture is eager to hear stories of black despair.

“Black death gets through to them,” the character named Number Three (Fowler) says, and by them he means the audience.

“Who is the ‘them’ that you’re talking about? Huh?” Number Two (Dobson) asks. “Because I don’t want to tell a story for those people. And if we have to, I want for us to tell it a different way.”

Love is telling it a different way — the story of a fully complex, frequently conflicted human being with a sort-of significant other, Kinda Ex-Boyfriend (Fowler), who ghosts him when Donté tells him of his diagnosis, and a mom (Dobson) whose loyalty is rock-solid even when she says all the wrong things.

Is it a spoiler to tell you that this stellar company of actors doesn’t take a bow at the end? It’s regrettable in a way, because we want to thank them, but this production is after something more profound than applause. This is a play about affirmation and communion and sounding the alarm.

It’s only on the way out that we get our Playbills, stuffed with an insert that includes a note from the playwright as well as a list of H.I.V./AIDS service organizations and other information. In the lobby, again unobtrusively, sits a basket of bold red AIDS ribbons, there for the taking.

Love didn’t spill his heart into his phone, and then put that important new play onstage, for a hidden emergency to stay hidden.

As Number Two says, “One in two is an epidemic.”

Until the last second of the play, those alarming numbers keep climbing. Love, and his characters, would like them to stop.