Playwright: Donja R. Love. At: PrideArts at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Tickets: 773-857-0222; $35. Runs through March 19
Playwright Donja R. Love stresses that lower case letters should be used for the title of his deeply personal and theatrically playful drama one in two. So it's odd that PrideArts' Chicago premiere of Love's critically acclaimed 2019 off-Broadway play features promotional title artwork in ALL CAPS.
But after absorbing director Jordan Ratliff's devastatingly powerful PrideArts production of one in two, the ALL CAPS advertising feels very appropriate. The symbolic shouting of PrideArts' poster art matches one in two's anguished and angry conclusion. The play culminates as a condemnation of how HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionally affect men of color who have sex with other men.
Love's play title comes from a 2016 Centers for Disease Control study that projects that one in two Black gay/bisexual men would be diagnosed as HIV-positive in their lifetime. So, Love builds in lots of theatrical devices in one in two to reflect this shocking statistic.
From the start, a relentless digital counter appears on a wall that ominously and sometimes psychedelically increases through the entire show (a credit to projection designer Eme Ospina-Lopez). Love also ruminates on the randomness of who gets infected with HIV via an "applause-o-meter" that apparently determines the roles each actor plays in the show.
Love makes tremendous demands on the play's three performers. Not only do they need to memorize the entire play if they do indeed need to take on one of three performing tracks, the performers also need to be expert comedians and tragedians throughout.
Director Ratliff has found a game and emotionally giving trio with Jonathan Samuel Allsop, Anania Williams and J. Xavier. These performers fully embody Love's many characters and a range of acting styles that range from outrageous camp to despairing seriousness.
The main focus in one in two is Donte, a young man coping with physical and emotional complications following an HIV diagnosis. These include adverse effects from HIV medications to plenty of major to micro-aggressions of Dante's friends and family.
But far from being dire, one in two also revels in its playfulness. For example, children's games take an adult turn to match the characters' budding sexuality.
Love also confidently depicts characters who skirt the edge of stereotypical gay or African-American tropes. There's plenty of laughs from a sassy ballroom scene habitué to Donte's noble and do-gooder mother.
There's also plenty of angst, since Love clearly does not want members of his community to be written off as just statistics. Unabashed sexuality also pulses throughout one in two, as Love shows how easy it is for in-the-moment slip-ups to occur when it comes to safer sex.
Ratliff's PrideArts production is fluid and briskly moves along, thanks to Elliot Hubiak's lighting that illuminates Brett Baleski's abstracted and triangle-filled set design. Sound designer Sarah Calvert also helps to shift moods with finely attuned work.
Though Love's one in two predates the COVID-19 pandemic, the play resonates even more because of it. Love's one in two is full of righteous indignation that HIV/AIDS continues to be a health threat, especially in communities of color.
And PrideArts production is especially timely in light of state plans to cut $5 million from HIV prevention in this year's Illinois budget. Anyone who wants to help stem the spread of HIV should see one in two and shout out its call-to-action message.