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It's not every day that a graduate school acting project is named one of the Ten Best Plays of the Year by the New York Times, but that's what's happened to In the Continuum. And as Jeff Lunden reports, this two-woman off-Broadway show is generating a lot of buzz for its young creators.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

New York Times drama critic Charles Isherwood says the subject matter of In the Continuum may seem daunting, but the play isn't.

Mr. CHARLES ISHERWOOD (Drama Critic, The New York Times): I think when people first hear that you're going to see a play about black women and HIV, they sort of assume that it's going to hit all the usual politically correct touchstones and tones, and also that it's going to be something of a depressing experience. But these two young women I think have approached it in a way that lightens it up, which sounds a little paradoxical. It's not a dirge, it's not a lecture. It's not preachy at all.

LUNDEN: Nikkole Salter, one of In the Continuum's actress/authors, plays Nia, a teenage girl who the audience first meets talking to a girlfriend in a nightclub bathroom.

(soundbite of In the Continuum)

LUNDEN: Most critics agree that Nikkole Salter and her co-author and co-performer, Danai Gurira, are full of potential as well. They met as graduate students in the acting program at New York University. Salter, who's from Los Angeles, and Gurira, who grew up in Zimbabwe, were both working on monologues about women with HIV/AIDS for their thesis project, says Salter. Ms. NIKKOLE SALTER (Playwright): And so I approached Danai and, you know, just thought, well, you do your piece and then we'll have a little intermission and I'll do my piece and that'll be great. And then a professor of ours suggested that that was rather boring and that we should put our stories together.

LUNDEN: Gurira says the two of them worked independently, improvising, doing research, but used each other as a sounding board. In the process, they discovered the shape of the piece which features interlocking monologues from several characters.

Ms. DANAI GURIRA (Playwright, Actress): We knew what the other one was trying to get at so we helped each other being the outside eye and suggesting, try it this way or that's not quite clear. But in terms of the actual content and the theme, we weren't at all trying to make them cohere in that regard, and that just happened.

LUNDEN: Gurira's protagonist is Abigail Murambe, a newsreader for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation who's pregnant with her second child and having marital problems.

(soundbite of In the Continuum)

LUNDEN: In the Continuum takes place over a 48 hour period where both protagonists, living continents apart, discover that the men in their lives have infected them with HIV. Each goes on a personal journey encountering various characters and cultural bias as they try to come to risk with their diagnosis and sense of isolation. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times says the juxtaposition of these narratives gives both resonance.

Mr. ISHERWOOD: I think they do a wonder job of integrating these two stories, dramatically as well as thematically. So that in Zimbabwe a woman is being given a diagnosis and in Los Angeles we're seeing the woman receive it in a way that really knits their stories together in a very sophisticated way.

LUNDEN: Danai Gurira plays the callous overworked nurse in Zimbabwe who delivers the bad news to Abigail.

Ms. GURIRA: The nurse is a personification of Zimbabwean bureaucracy, in a sense. She really represents a lot of what I've experienced, like, you know, when you go into a public office of any sort where I'm from, you kind of have to gird yourself for abuse. You know? I understand her perspective in the sense that she is in situation where like the Zimbabwean health system has collapsed.

(soundbite of In the Continuum)

LUNDEN: After the teenage Nia finds out she has HIV, she goes to see her mother, also played by Nikkole Salter.

(soundbite of In the Continuum)

LUNDEN: After Salter and Gurira graduated from NYU, they presented In the Continuum in various places big and small, at the United Nations, where they won a Global Tolerance Award, and at tiny theater in the South Bronx where Andrew Leynse, the artistic director of Primary Stages first saw it.

Mr. ANDREW LEYNSE (Artistic Director, Primary Stages): And it's the kind of neighborhood where you, when, you know, you're white and you walk in the neighborhood, people say, Get out of here! But it was great. And we were blown away by the show.

LUNDEN: Leynse decided to present a longer revamped version of In the Continuum at Primary Stages. After receiving rave reviews from several critics, it moved to the Perry Street Theater in Greenwich Village, where its been selling out. And Danai Gurira says the play evokes a strong response from the audience.

Ms. GURIRA: We would get women coming up to us who would tell us how they haven't disclosed to family, friends or colleagues yet. And this one woman, she didn't want to tell me her name. She was really just like, No, I can't. And having them share their stories with us like that was just so humbling, to realize that they felt they could trust us with that sort of information that obviously they didn't want to share with anybody.

LUNDEN: In the Continuum is scheduled to run until February 18th at the Perry Street Theater and then it will play in Hirare, Zimbabwe. Next September the show begins a tour of the U.S., playing at venues in Washington D.C., Cincinnati and Los Angeles. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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