Blazing the DNA Trail: Theater Review / by R. Sheth

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January 26, 2011
By Howard Ho

Put seven of the most celebrated Asian American playwrights into a room and give each of them the topic of DNA heritage as the basis for a ten-minute play. Oh, and make them all take DNA tests and have them grapple with the results. It sounds like it might be a reality TV show, but in fact, theatre impresario Jamil Khoury did just that.

The fruits of Khoury's commission, collectively called "The DNA Trail: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity and Utter Confusion" were performed in a concert reading at USC's Bovard Auditorium on Saturday evening.

Perhaps the most impressive feat was the performances, not only from most of the original actors from the Chicago production but also the presence all seven playwrights, flown in from all corners of the country. All involved stuck around for a Q&A and a catered reception where they could be easily accosted. It was a splendid night for interactive theatre.

As we learned during the Q&A, the playwriting process was equally splendid. Each of the playwrights were flown three times to Chicago to meet together in a writer's room of sorts for a rehearsal process that involved open dialogue between the actors, director Steve Scott, and the playwrights. In short, The DNA Trail was a model for how to commission and produce new works. The result was a full meal of an evening with diverse themes and narratives explored.

The theme of loss manifested itself in a few of the pieces. Shishir Kurup's Bolt from the Blue portrayed the friendship of two cousins across the Atlantic, one who is suicidal with schizophrenic tendencies in Scotland and the other who is desperately concerned about this in America. They correspond only through emails, which prove to be inadequate. In the play's most memorable passage, the American cousin pleads with his Scottish cousin to "let me be the one in your head."

Mother Road had the distinction of being written by USC's own Velina Hasu Houston. Her ability to weave the theme of loss and family together sustained a story of estranged sisters, one of whom had her breasts pre-emptively removed after discovering her genetic predisposition to breast cancer.

Others chose a decidedly comic energy. Elizabeth Wong's Finding Your Inner Zulu ingenuously imagined two Asian American sisters taking a trip into a Disney-fied version of a DNA strand. Along the way, they discover their Jewish heritage, culminating in a spirited traditional Hebrew singalong. Lina Patel's That Could Be You was about an adoptive couple meeting their soon-to-be born child's parents and the often funny culture clash.

Jamil Khoury's wry WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole centered around the misperceptions of Khoury's name, skin color, cultural heritage, and even his occupation as Artistic Director of a non-profit theatre. One could sense Khoury's longing for acceptance in his identity, which is half Arabic and half Caucasian, or as he describes it: "white without benefits." Equally full of schadenfreude is when he explains to a materialistic Arabic friend the importance of running a theatre that is not for profit. (The friend replies blankly, "What does it mean?")

The show ended with its two most brilliant pieces that were almost diametrically opposite in tone. David Henry Hwang's A Very DNA Reunion takes the premise "What if you could summon your most famous ancestors together with you in one room?" An underachieving teenage boy with low self-esteem flirts with Cleopatra and has a martial arts lesson with Genghis Khan, both among his ancestors according to a scam called DNAancestry.com. Hwang's play succeeds in that he rebels against Khoury's commission, and indeed, Hwang mentioned afterwards that he believed it was lazy to find identity solely through a DNA test, calling it "a bit of a crock." His implicit critique of reductive identity politics made his trademark edgy humor stand out mischievously.

Capping the night was Philip Kan Gotanda's Child is Father to Man, which was haunting, silent, and emotional. Written as a monologue for a Japanese American, a decidedly non-East Asian actor Khurram Mozaffar performed the piece with dignity and solemnity. It was the first time Gotanda had cast someone of Middle Eastern heritage and asked later about the acting, Gotanda said, "Very good." Again, the theme of loss cropped up with a son mourning the loss of his father. Gotanda's piece achieved an emotional depth and poetry, which made it easy to see why his was chosen to end the show.

Among the cast of seven who played various roles, Clayton Stamper especially displayed a versatility delving into Ebonics, Jewish incantation, Scottish brogue, and teenage naïveté. Nora Fiffer, as the only non-original cast member in the reading, also filled her roles with grace and poise. Fawzia Mirza brought power and precision equally to her playfully seductive Cleopatra to a staid mother. Jennifer Shin, Anthony Peeples, Melissa Kong, and Mozaffar rounded out the cast.

The DNA Trail played to a packed Bovard Hall, and most stayed for the Q&A, where Khoury asked the audience for one-worded feedback, yielding a thesaurus-length list of laudatory adjectives. Overall, the evening was an effective showcase of the Asian American aesthetic and was as close as we'll ever get to seeing Asian American Playwriting Idol.

Check out APA's recent interview with playwright David Henry Hwang and article about Mo'olelo Theatre's production of Yellow Face.