March 11, 2010
By Kerry Reid
Seven years after scientists completed the monumental task of mapping out our DNA in the Human Genome Project, most of us seem as confused as ever about why we turn out the way we do, and so the debate—genetic determinism vs. social conditioning—goes on.
The folks at the Silk Road Theatre Project are exploring the thorny questions of identity, heritage, and biology through a mix of advanced science and drama. The DNA Trail: A Genealogy of Short Plays About Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion began with seven playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern (i.e., Silk Road) descent swabbing their mouths for cheek cells, which were then sent off to a lab to be analyzed for clues about their genetic lineages. What did the resulting information lead them to think about their own identities? The seven short works comprising The DNA Trail are far less about ethnic traits, it turns out, than personal history. These plays could have been created by writers from almost any background. The upshot, at least for the Silk Road authors: what we start out with needn't determine where we end up.
The DNA Trail isn't seamless—with seven distinct voices, how could it be? But on the whole it's a smart and challenging production, directed with clarity by Steve Scott, that focuses far less than one might expect on identity politics. At its best, it's a poignant meditation on how difficult it is to recognize the impact of our immediate families, much less whatever came down to us through the double helix of history.
First up is Elizabeth Wong's Finding Your Inner Zulu , in which Cricket, a Chinese-American high school basketball star (the sparkling Jennifer Shin) discovers that her "vertically challenged" status will keep her out of contention for scholarships and the WNBA. With the help of Emma, her cheerleader sister (Melissa Kong), she takes a trip into her own DNA a la Fantastic Voyage to see if she can fix her chromosomal disadvantage. There are some kitschy touches—a genetic dominatrix in a lab coat (Cora Vander Broek) seems intent on eradicating Emma for reasons that aren't clear, and the rabbi and Zulu warrior that the girls encounter in their genetic line have a central-casting generic quality. But the feel-good message about not letting your genes influence your sense of self-worth makes the piece appealing as a light curtain-raiser.
Sisterhood is a bit more complex in Velina Hasu Houston's Mother Road , in which Perpetua (Shin) tracks down Eva (Fawzia Mirza), the half-sister her mother gave up for adoption. The quest isn't just a matter of curiosity. Having watched her mom die of breast cancer, Perpetua has learned that she carries the genetic marker for the disease and wants to warn her sibling about the potential danger that's led her to have her own breasts removed. The pain of abandonment is evident in Mirza's spitfire performance ("What planned-community suburban fairy tale did you drop out of?" she sneers to Perpetua), but new-age filigree—including Vander Broek as Luna, a moon goddess with a confusing Dust Bowl-era back story—gets in the way of the family tensions.
Lina Patel lightens the mood a bit with That Could Be You , in which a yuppie couple in the market for a baby faces off against addled teenage birth parents. The four actors—whose characters are named Addy, Teddy, Cyndy, and Gene, for adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, which form the rungs on the DNA ladder—switch roles periodically. But for all its winsome moments, the play avoids addressing its own tough question: "Are you who you think you are, or is there a molecule out there that knows better?"
Silk Road artistic director Jamil Khoury does away with most of the genetic stuff altogether in a quite funny rant, WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole , in which Clayton Stamper plays the playwright. The ethnic mix in Khoury's background is described by one Hollywood type as "a Chicago thing—very Obama!" and Khoury's encounters with Arab Man (Khurram Mozaffar) remind him that there are aspects of traditional Arab culture that can make a 21st-century gay guy awfully uncomfortable, even if he is descended from Syrian Christians. You can stake out your own identity, he suggests, but that doesn't mean that people won't blithely cross your boundary lines with their own culturally inherited assumptions about who you are.
David Henry Hwang—the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of M. Butterfly and by far the biggest name in the program—contributes a charming but disposable comic sketch, A Very DNA Reunion , in the second act. It's the two plays on either side of his, though, that are the small masterpieces of the evening, bringing together heredity and family history in subtle and heartbreaking ways.
Shishir Kurup's Bolt From the Blue follows Rishi (Mozaffar), a divorced Indian writer living in Los Angeles, as he tries desperately to reach out to Hari (Stamper), his depressed young cousin in Scotland who's made multiple suicide attempts. Staged as a series of dialogues conducted via phone and e-mail, the piece reminds us how much the terror of inheriting mental or physical illnesses can color our daily lives.
Kurup eases that terror somewhat by having Rishi's vinegary mother (Mirza) deliver a running series of mordant reminders of all the family members who have gone through some nightmarish illness or other. But the sorrowful affection between Rishi and Hari gives this play a weight that can be felt long after it ends. What good are bloodlines if they don't help us understand one another's pain? And what does "family" mean in a world where many of us are thousands of miles away from our loved ones and unable to look into their faces?
Of course, the greatest distance is the one between us and our dead. In Philip Kan Gotanda's Child Is Father to Man a Japanese-American writer (Mozaffar) remembers his emotionally reserved father, whose death has left him unmoored. The son tries to find his dad in their shared physical tics, but the old man's corpse is alien to him, reminding him of "a large sick animal that wandered into this hospital room. . . . A whale that has beached itself in this public place of help and healing." And he remembers most how his status as an artist put him outside the family pecking order. Establishing his own identity has led him full circle to contemplate one of the places where his life started: the body of his father. It's a devastating piece made stronger by Mozaffar's controlled and emotionally resonant performance.
Scott attempts to link the plays, most notably by having a character from one hand over a prop that will take on iconic qualities in the next. Before Gotanda's piece, for instance, Mozaffar receives the coins that he uses to cover his father's eyes. Rebecca Barrett and Lee Keenan's handsome, effective set and lighting design—a series of backlit, rotating Plexiglas panels painted to look like genetic sequences—add visual texture without distracting from the various suggested locales.
It's hard to figure out where each playwright stands on the nature/nurture question. But then, maybe that's an answer in itself. Having a map of your genes doesn't necessarily help you understand where you've ended up, or how you got there.