Emotional ‘One In Two’ Innovatively Illuminates A Startling Statistic

Island City Stage’s 2021-2022 season is finishing up with a bang with their current production of Donja R. Love’s One In Two. The play, inspired by Love’s own experience as an openly HIV positive black gay man, gets its name from a statistic that’s hard to fathom, and one that is hard to fathom is so often ignored: as opposed to one in six gay or bisexual white men and one in four gay or bisexual latino men, one in two gay or bisexual black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point during their life. 

Though the reasons for this “hidden epidemic” are complex, much of it comes down to the same institutionalized oppression that made those from minority communities more vulnerable to the COVID crisis as well, including lower access to healthcare resources that could help reduce the spread of HIV and allow the best possible outcomes for those infected through earlier testing and treatment. 

In One in Two, Love confronts the audience directly with a meta theatrical approach, framing the tale of his central character Dontè by setting the play in a nondescript metaphysical “waiting room,” itself perfectly calibrated by set designer Ardean Landhuis. 

There, three characters designated in the playbill only as “person on the left,” “person on the right,” and “person in the center” call on the audience to help them decide which among them will play Dontè as “Number One.”

Then, the remaining two actors battle it out via rock paper scissors to determine which of them will be “Number Two” and “Number Three,” with each playing a variety of other characters in Donte’s story, who are referred to by titles like “Kind Of Ex Boyfriend,” “Married Man At Center,” and “Person at Bar.” 

Though it poses a significant challenge to the show’s cast, this allows One In Two to serve as a commentary on the way that stories about black men with HIV are or are not told in mainstream media as well as to tell Dontè’s individual story, which begins when he is informed of his HIV diagnosis and follows him as he tries to come to terms with his status. 

Photo Credits: Matthew Tippins

The device of “numbers” also heightens awareness of the awful central statistic and highlights the random absurdity of who gets the virus and who doesn’t. Number One is initially reluctant to step into Dontè’s HIV-positive shoes, and the journey that ensues once he does is indeed often a painful one. We follow Dontè through the painful process of revealing his status to his loved ones, with his mother reacting with unhelpful emotionality and his kind of ex-boyfriend proceeding to abandon him.

To cope, Dontè begins attending a support group with other HIV positive patients, who illuminate other aspects of life with the disorder as they express their own frustrations. He confides in them about the excruciating side effects of his medication, and his only relief, he says, is his writing—of a play that is implied to be One In Two itself.

Later, we watch as Dontè turns to alcohol, weed, and meaningless hookups to numb the pain of his diagnosis and ensuing isolation. The nurse he must visit for an extensive battery of blood tests describes his reaction to the diagnosis as a not uncommon one.

“Sometimes the hurt is a bigger virus than the HIV,” she memorably says, one of many moments that emphasizes the role stigma and othering plays in the suffering of HIV patients. In another, a moving monologue by the character of Number Two during a later meta sequence, he describes noticing looks of fear and disgust on other’s faces when they learn of his positive status and the physical and emotional distance he finds between them and himself.

Love’s script wisely balances the pathos with plenty of lighter, humorous moments, such as the fourth-wall breaking banter of the “numbered” characters, a schoolyard game of “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours” from Dontè’s childhood days, and the wild anecdotes of a character known as “Banjii Cunt At The Center.” 

Photo Credits: Matthew Tippins

At the performance I saw, Randall Swinton was elected to play Dontè as number 1, leaving Kevane La’marr Coleman to take the track of number 3 and Nathaniel J Ryan to take the track of number two. Incredibly, each actor felt so well-suited to their role that it’s hard to imagine the story playing out any differently, with all three infusing a tremendous amount of energy into their characters and Swinton giving a nuanced and sensitive performance as Dontè. 

Though the addition of small costume pieces also helps differentiate the show’s peripheral characters from another, the other actors also played a huge part in making the distinction clear, showing tremendous versatility in their ability to imbue each with their own persona. Ryan was particularly memorable as the expressive “Banjii Cunt,” as was Coleman as Dontè’s stoner hookup, who is identified only by his username of “Tradehunglikeahorse_99.”

Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg keeps the action moving at a crisp pace as the actors’ choreography-like movement adds a sense of artfulness and elevation to the evening, and a steamy bedroom moment orchestrated by intimacy choreographer Nicole Perry is another memorable touch. 

Photo Credits: Matthew Tippins

Without giving away too much about One In Two’s ending, which is implied early on will be a tragic one, the play eventually reveals itself to be more life-affirming than the typical AIDS-themed tearjerker. However, it is also a clear call to action, which is emphasized through another aspect of its fourth wall breaking meta-structure—a constantly increasing tally of the number of black gay men with HIV made visible on a small screen onstage. Until those numbers stop ticking up, the message of One in Two will remain an urgent one, and this highly theatrical take on the modern AIDS crisis delivers it in a way that is both poignant and entertaining. It’s worth making your way to Island City Stage to catch this fine production for yourself before it closes up on September 4th.

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