At Black Rep, Women’s Voices are Loud and Clear

BY Arts Desk  May 1, 2009 at 4:23 PM EDT

“Their life is OK. They’re living, and all of a sudden — boom! Something hits and everything changes.” That’s how 28-year-old actress Sharisa Whatley described the play, “In the Continuum,” which reaches across continents to track the separate lives of two young women, one African and the other African-American, as they deal with the grave realities of the AIDS epidemic.

“I think it’s really exciting, the concept that the playwrights had about parallel worlds,” said director Lorna Littleway, “because the characters ultimately feel very isolated in their situation. And I think that’s one of the first things to conquer is that feeling of being alone, that ‘I’m the only one that this is happening to.”

At 82 minutes without an intermission, the play is a two-person tour de force with both leads taking on many characters: a journalist, a mother, a witch doctor, a sex worker. The multi-role aspect of actress Marylynn Melissa Gwatiringa’s characters was a major draw to the production. “You get to see everything from, you know, a powerful, strong woman who works at a TV station, to someone who is more traditional … that was important to me,” said Gwatiringa.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Gwatiringa said the role holds special significance for her. “I think a lot of people from the western world view Africans as one big blob … I love that this script is written specifically from the point of view of a Zimbabwean woman; it’s a separate country from the rest of Africa and we get to explore the culture and the language of that specific country,” she said. The script, which was written by Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira, has some lines in Shona, the principal language in Zimbabwe, including school-kid play chants in an exuberant first scene.

This is the 32nd season of the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater Company, which “itself is a monumental accomplishment, even more so in these pressing economic times,” said Ron Himes, the executive director. “Those companies that begin to fail, fail because they were aging groups and they never opened up to other possibilities,” said Linda Kennedy, the company’s artistic director. “We wanted to be able to open up and bring in other people so that our audiences didn’t find us or our productions getting stale. It was a win-win situation.” The Black Rep prides itself on bringing actors and directors from across the country to St. Louis, including Littleway.

Gwatiringa, an MFA student at Lindenwood University, discovered the Black Rep when she came to watch the award-winning production of “Sarafina,” which coincidentally starred fellow cast member Whatley. “I loved it and cried all through the thing,” Gwatiringa told us, adding, “I said, ‘Who are these people who put this together?’ I have to be a part of this.”

She found them at the right moment. “In the Continuum” is part of a yearlong series of productions at Black Rep’s focused on stories about and featuring women.

“I’m concerned about who we give voice to, and how we are able to give voice to people and communities who don’t always have outlets,” Himes said. “That was the driving force for this season.”

Littleway also sees this production about giving people back their voice: “The playwrights also tackle silence: individual silence, collective silence, societal silence…In this particular situation [it’s] the devastation of AIDS, how simply everyone just backs away from it.”

For Whatley, the play’s take-home message is two-fold. “Getting the overall message of the play out is the goal,” she said. “Letting people know that you got to come out and support the theater…There are so many ways to be entertained, yet educated at the same time.”

“In the Continuum” opens Friday, May 1.