Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
We Are Continuous
That's a bit what We Are Continuous, which opened this weekend at New Conservatory Theatre Center, felt like to me. It was as though I and my fellow playgoers were flies on the wall, listening to Simon (Devin A. Cunningham) tell his truth about coming out of the closet as a young Black man in a very religious family. The play by Harrison David Rivers, in its West Coast premiere, is gripping, funny and–above all else–brutally honest. It's rare and wonderful to experience a story where not a single note feels out of tune, not a single detail feels extraneous, and not a single line feels anything less that true and natural.
None of the action in We Are Continuous takes place in the present moment. It's all memories: Simon's, his mother's, and his husband's. But somehow, thanks to Rivers' narrative skills and sure-handed direction by Shawnj West, it always feels contemporaneous. We as an audience are present in the moment of hearing the story, and the characters–even though they are recounting past events–make those memories come alive as though we are witnessing them in real time.
The story–or stories, for hear much of Simon's life–focuses on his coming out at age 16, the tensions that event caused in a home where church was a key component of family life, and the years of struggle the family faced in coming to grips with Simon's sexuality and the challenges that raised for all concerned. Despite his parents' strong faith–as Mother (Alicia Stamps) says, "A belief isn't a belief unless you hold on to it–even when it's hard."
We Are Continuous is, in many ways, a sad story. His parents, while they love him deeply, struggle to come to terms with what makes him different. He has trouble adjusting to his understanding of himself, going so far as to go online to Google "How to be a gay man." (As well as Googling how to avoid using one's teeth when performing oral sex.) He finds himself in an abusive relationship that leaves him scarred–both emotionally and physically–before ultimately meeting the love of his life.
Despite these hardships, We Are Continuous is filled with humor of many varieties: tender, gut-wrenching, uncomfortable, relatable.
At 70 intermission-less minutes, We Are Continuous absolutely rockets along, thanks in part to West's taut direction and brilliant performances from all three actors. As Simon, Cunningham has a wonderful intensity. He is absolutely present in each moment and uses his entire body to communicate both the pains and the joys of his character's experience. Stamps is perfection as a deeply religious woman who loves her son unconditionally, despite the obvious pain his revelations may have caused her. Fortunately, she manages to separate aspects of their relationship to keep the love flowing between them. "I have never imagined my son in bed with another man," she says–even though some of her friends prod her for details, like whether her son is a top or a bottom!
As the Husband, Walter Zarnowitz is terrific as an outsider who becomes part of the family. His gentleness and empathy are on full display as he navigates his way as a white man becoming part of a Black family.
But what is perhaps most thrilling about the cast of We Are Continuous is how seamlessly they connect with each other. There is never a moment when you feel like the actors are not genuinely listening to each other, and living in the moments of their characters in a way that makes you feel you're watching a real family dealing with real issues. It was a joy watching each of the three actors respond to what is being said to them and about them. Just one example: when Simon's mother is talking about her son's "proclivities," Cunningham tilts his head ever so slightly and almost closes his eyes, as though he's restraining himself from shouting, "they're not 'proclivities,' mom! This is who I am!" As the best acting does, Cunningham makes you feel what his character is feeling.
This is one of the best productions ever at NCTC, and one that richly deserves your attendance and will reward your attention.
We Are Continuous runs through November 26, 2023, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit NCTCSF.org or call 415-861-8972.