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Donja R. Love talks about telling a story to encourage other gay, Black, HIV-positive men to tell theirs

Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler, and Edward Mawere in Donja R. Love’s “One in Two,” directed by Stevie Walker-Webb.
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In my estimation, the undoubted best new play of 2019 was Donja R. Love’s “One in Two,” and I had the privilege of meeting this dynamic, fresh voice in American theater right at the Signature Center on West 42nd Street where his play runs through January 12. As magnetic and colorful in his appearance as in his writing, let me let him tell the story of how this most wonderful creation came to be.

“For me, it always is the most marginalized of folks who seldom get to hold space and share our stories, which is why we are in the place we’re in right now, as my title says, that one in two Black, queer/ bisexual men having HIV, along with one in eleven white men, and one in four Latinos. The most dominant of these individuals holds the most space with people listening, while no one pays any attention to us saying, ‘Hey, we see this is happening, we can’t do this on our own anymore, we need help!’

“I recently read that they are starting to make Truvada and PrEP absolutely free [under a plan announced by the federal Department of Health and Human Services that is open to people without prescription drug coverage], which is great. But with that said, I take medication every day and a monthly refill is over $3,000 a month. Luckily, I have programs and amazing insurance and don’t have to pay anything. But what about my brothers and sisters living in Jackson, Michigan, without these programs? Who can’t afford it? What does that look like?”

As intriguingly novel as his subject is the construction of Love’s play, which has his cast of three African-American men (Jamyl Dobson, Edward Mawere, and Leland Fowler) exchanging roles randomly each performance as the result of audience participation and games of chance.

“It was my way of conveying the fact of anyone contracting HIV, as Donté, my central character, does. Could I do it so the audience isn’t at first aware of it, until they’re in the middle of it, thinking, ‘Oh, God, I am a party to this.’ And this scared the crap out of my director, Stevie Walker-Webb, and my cast, for what I was asking them to do, once we started, there was no turning back. I thought, ‘I hope what I am doing is right,’ and then I went back to the works I admire, which you mentioned this rather reminded you of — ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘No Exit’ — and thought, ‘Just keep going.’

“This was the first play I wrote completely on my phone. I would ordinarily start it in a marble notebook and then transfer it on to my laptop, but I was in such a state with this one that I couldn’t even get out of bed to go over to my laptop. So I just opened my Notebook application and started it. What would we do without technology?

Of his cast, Love enthused, “Our actors are rock stars, and we found them through my director, the New Group, and casting director Judy Henderson. We knew going in that the actors had to play every single character and that’s not easy. There was one moment when Casting said, ‘You know, you’re giving these actors like 20 pages of sides.’ ‘I know,’ I said. ‘But they have to be able to play everything.’

“For preparation for the cast’s auditions, we landed on Donté, his mother, Trade [a macho homeboy trick for Donté], and Banjii Cunt [a flamboyantly sassy queen], particularly the latter two, as they are so different to play. I am a big listener to the Divine Force, which guided us, and these actors have amazing craft and skill, and with a play like this you are going to be spending a lot of time with them, so you want people you can hang around with. It’s not just a working/ professional relationship, it’s a personal one, where you want to be able to have a kiki with them afterwards, spend time together — and those were these actors.

“I told them, ‘I know I wrote this, but I don’t know what it requires you to do.’ I want to make sure that I am here to empower and liberate you as much as I can because there will be times when I or your director will not be here, and it will just be you. I want to make sure that you all feel empowered, liberated, and safe as much as possible on that stage because you literally will not know which part you will be doing until 10 to 15 minutes into the play.”

The actors are at all times completely fearless and often naked in every best sense of the word, which Love recognized.

“It’s a lot to ask and I think Stevie said it best one day as we rehearsed: ‘This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and the most terrifying.’ We all breathed a sigh: ‘You said exactly what we were feeling! We’re excited but at the same time feeling, “I don’t think I wanna do this!”’

“If I can be candid, my anxiety level during this process was higher than anything I’d ever felt in my entire life. It was during the second week of previews that I had to go to the hospital because I thought I was surely going to have an anxiety attack because of how personal and complex to work out it was. I was like, ‘Why did you do this?’ I actually knew why but ‘Why did I put myself through this?’ was my big question.”

The rehearsal process was a lavish five weeks, Love said, “instead of the usual three. The New Group was amazing, giving us five weeks — although I could have used one more. We researched it and found no previous play model for any rehearsals like this, but Stevie came up with the genius idea of focusing on one or two characters, like Donté and his Mom, or him and the bartender. The actors were willing to share the backstories they’d come up with for each character.

“With the exception of Donté, none of the characters had an actual name. But we discovered the names each actor had given Mom, the bartender, how long he’d been tending that bar, the kind of music they listened to, etc. What they did was so incredibly detailed and Stevie was a genius, laying the foundation so that by the time we got into the theater, every actor was truly grounded in whatever track [character] they were playing.”

A unique problem was that if an actor hadn’t randomly been chosen to play a particular character over a period of performances he ran the risk of becoming rutsty.

“I remember Eddie hadn’t played a certain track for something like two weeks and I was in the audience at that preview, dying with nervousness, thinking, ‘Oh God, he’s gonna forget the blocking, etc.’ But he jumped right in and didn’t miss a beat.”

I have rarely seen a play where every word feels so true and actually lived.

“I literally have to write what I know. For so long I would hide behind a character but for this I couldn’t — or sugarcoat anything. I mean, come on, the lead’s name is Donté, and I’m Donja. I could have named him Donja but I needed some distinction. [Laughs.]

“During the previews, watching it was traumatic for me. I would sit in the last row of the balcony, where I could still see people leaning in and when they fell back, reacting, and I could hear the audience below in the orchestra. So I was doing my job as a playwright, listening to the audience reactions to figure out what was working and not.

“It’s still a slippery slope because I want to know how people are reacting to the play but I don’t want to know how they are reacting to my life. I still haven’t figured it out [laughs], but after the second preview, I remember I was leaving the theater when this man stopped me and said, ‘I saw it yesterday. My name is so and so and I have been HIV-positive for such and such a time.’ He said this all at once, in one breath — I still get chills thinking about it. He felt safe enough to tell me all this, and I am so grateful for that, and — I am trying not to cry right now — I am humbled that I was the vessel chosen to tell this story so other individuals who might share this experience can see this and feel safe and somehow empowered enough to share their own stories.”

Read David Kennerley’s review of “One in Two”: tinyurl.com/veny38u

ONE IN TWO | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 12: Sun., Tue.- Fri. & Dec. 23 & 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.| $43-$123 at thenewgroup.org | Ninety mins., with no intermission

Updated 7:02 pm, December 30, 2019
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