In the digital age, it’s not unusual to create a new work of art by combing elements from two or more existing pieces. But while such “mashups” have become popular in the world of pop music and short videos, it’s not a technique that has caught on in the theater.
But the term absolutely applies to In the Continuum, one of the most acclaimed off-Broadway plays of recent years. The comedy/drama, which the Ensemble Theatre Company will open Saturday night, started as two separate shows, written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, respectively.
The two women met at New York University, as fellow students in the graduate acting program. Each was working on an original one-woman show, and at some point an aesthetically astute instructor suggested they consider combining their works-in-progress into a single piece.
They took the advice, and were so excited by the results that they kept working together after earning their degrees. In June 2004, they refined their creation at the Ojai Playwrights Festival under the guidance of playwright Charlayne Woodard. A little over a year later, the work officially premiered at New York’s Primary Stages, receiving across-the-board rave reviews.
In the Continuum went on to appear on many critics’ Top 10 lists and win Obie Awards for the two creator/performers and director Robert O’Hara. Gurira and Salter subsequently toured the work, traveling to-among other prestigious venues-the Edinburgh Festival, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, and several festivals in Africa.
They have now let go of the piece, allowing it to be interpreted by other artists. The Ensemble production features two actresses with extensive stage experience-Julia Pace Mitchell and Tiffany Adams-and is directed by a third, Broadway veteran Saundra McClain. Both Mitchell and Adams are veterans of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
“I see the play as an abstract painting,” McClain said in an interview from her home in Thousand Oaks. “I’ve tried to create visual images that evoke feelings in the audiences.”
In that sense, she doesn’t have much to work with: Aside from a single tree symbolizing the characters’ common roots, there is no set other than the stools the two actresses perch upon. But the words themselves are undeniably evocative, and the stories they tell have resonated deeply with audiences around the world.
The play tells the parallel stories of two contemporary women-a 19-year-old living in South Los Angeles and a 30-year-old newscaster in Zimbabwe. During the 48 hours in which the action takes place, they each discover two momentous things: they are pregnant, and they are HIV positive.
“It’s not a play about HIV/AIDS,” the director insisted. “It’s about two women living 12 hours apart. It’s about love and responsibility. It’s about cultural traditions and the decision whether or not to break with them.”
The actresses each play multiple roles-the lead part in their own character’s story, and the supporting roles in the parallel story. “It’s a very complex piece, but comical at the same time,” said McClain. “There’s a lot of humor.”
McClain is used to dealing with complex work. Her New York stage experience includes the Broadway production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and three shows with the New York Shakespeare Festival, including Pericles. Since moving to Southern California several years ago, she has again focused on Shakespeare, playing (among other roles) the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare Santa Cruz.
She befriended Ensemble’s Artistic Director Jonathan Fox when both were working at the Two River Theater Company in New Jersey. She directed several critically acclaimed productions there, including the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.
When Fox offered her the chance to direct In the Continuum, she was initially hesitant. “I told him I hadn’t seen the play and wasn’t familiar with it,” she recalled. “He told me that was fine-that I would bring a fresh eye to it. So we’re workshopping the piece just as if we were creating it. And we’re having fun. I found two incredible actresses.”
Reviewing the New York production for Newsday, Rob Kendt (an old friend of this writer and an astute critic) wrote: “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.” If McClain and her cast can capture the magic of the original staging, this 90-minute mashup promises to be a highlight of the season.
In the Continuum runs March 26-April 19 at Ensemble Theatre Company’s Alhecama Theatre. For tickets and information, visit ensembletheatre.com or call 965-5400.