Silk Road playwrights explore identity along the DNA trail / by R. Sheth

January 19, 2010
BY HOWARD WOLINSKY

Based on his name, 44-year-old Chicago playwright Jamil Khoury says that people expect him to be African-American or “stereotypically” Middle Eastern.

But when they meet him in person, they tell the 6' 6" Khoury he looks Irish.

Actually, his family history tells a different story. He's a self-described WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs, son of a Syrian father and a Central/Eastern European mother.

A mixed, complex heritage isn't unusual in America. But it intrigues Khoury, co-founder of Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project.

He decided to research his identity by unraveling his DNA through genetic testing. Khoury was joining a popular new hobby of self-exploration through genetic genealogy. The first commercial genetic genealogy tests were done 10 years ago.

An estimated one million people, mainly in the United States, have undergone the testing over the past decade.

Here's what they do: Labs send them kits with a cotton swab to remove cheek cells or a vial into which they spit. The kits are mailed back. Labs then extract the DNA from the cells, compare the results to databases and display the results online confidentially. Prices range from $100 to about $1,000 depending on the depth of the testing.

Genetic genealogy is available from such companies as Oxford Ancestors at http://www.oxfordancestors.com/, Family Tree DNA at http://www.familytreedna.com, Ancestry.com at http://www.ancestry.com, Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation at http://www.smgf.org/ and National Geographic’s Genographic Project at https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/.

Newer companies started since 2007 not only look at ancestry but genetic tendencies to develop diseases and traits, from breast cancer and heart disease to blue eyes. These include Google-backed 23andMe at https://www.23andme.com/ and deCODEme at http://www.decodeme.com/.

People undergo testing to confirm or refute possible relationships found in conventional research on family trees. Adoptees who don't know their family roots can learn about their background from tests. Some people undergo testing to see if they may be related to royalty or historic figures.

Khoury had a different idea.

Khoury decided to use DNA to explore identity issues.

He and his partner Malik Gallini, the theater’s executive director, started Silk Road Theatre Project in 2002 to showcase playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. The Silk Road was an extensive network of trade routes connecting Asia, Europe and Africa.

He invited six other playwrights to be tested.

After the results came in, the authors met with DNA experts, including a genetics counselor and a bioethicist, to discuss the technology and disease inheritance, privacy and other issues affecting the field.

Khoury said the tests held no surprises since the playwrights knew their roots.

(They included Philip Kan GotandaPhilip Kan Gotanda, Japanese;Velina Hasu Houston, half Japanese, half African-American and Blackfoot Pikuni Native American; David Henry Hwang, Chinese; Jamil Khoury,half Syrian, quarter Polish, quarter Slovak; Shishir Kurup, Indian; Lina Pate, Indian, and Elizabeth Wong, Chinese.)

But the experience prompted the writers to look at issues involved with the testing, such as identity politics and whether science can be used to explain identity. “The tests served as a springboard to conversations that became impetus for plays,” Khoury said.

The result is seven short plays, The DNA Trail, directed by Steve Scott, which Khoury describes as “ancestry, identity and utter confusion,” in short pieces. The show, now in rehearsals, runs March 2 through April 4 at Pierce Hall at the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Chicago. Tickets cost $34. For more information, go to http://www.srtp.org.

Khoury said he believes The DNA Trails may be the first play about DNA testing.

He said the playwrights wrote seven distinct plays. “Some are funny. A few are kind of dark. One is sort of sad. Some mention the tests; others do not.”

Some consumers take the tests in hopes of connecting with ancestors who were historic figures.

Tony Award winner Hwang wrote a playful riff about a character named Bob who takes a genetic test showing he is related to Cleopatra and Genghis KhanGenghis Khan.

In A Very DNA Reunion, these famous ancestors pay Bob a visit and tell him his lineage entitles him to royal treatment. The play looks at how Bob handles the news.

Hwang said: “Science today, at least in commercial DNA testing, can reveal only the broadest outlines of one’s ancestral past. I came to see DNA testing as the pseudoscientific stepchild of the past lives craze from earlier decades.”

Khoury, whose work WASP examines Middle Eastern and Diaspora themes,entitled his piece WASP, to explore his personal identity issues as an Arab Slav. “Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes angry, but usually, ‘What are you?’ makes for a good ice breaker and teachable moment. Writing WASP was like taking a stroll down identity politics lane. But it also forced me to recognize that underneath all my pat answers and automated defenses is a reservoir of estrangement from the communities I belong to and feel obligated to defend,” he said.

Patel, an actress who has appeared in CSI, said: “My swab showed that my ancestors, after a brief stop in Ukraine, have been reliably South Asian, whatever that meant 20,000 years ago. I was hoping for something revelatory, like Scottish ancestry, which might explain my visceral and abiding love of bagpipes and Scotch.”

She wrote That Could Be You, which explores expectations about genetics, parenthood and identity. She wrote the play during a period while she was adopting a baby.

Khoury said the plays inspired by DNA testing show that identity is “complicated somewhat messy. We can’t just rely on a test to tell us who we are. Ultimately, it’s a very internal conversation. It’s forever changing; it’s always in flux.”

Blaine Bettinger, who blogs at The Genetic Genealogist at http://www.thegeneticgenealogist.com, said the plays address many of the issues the field has been facing in recent years, including the effects of testing on the individual.

He added: “Additionally, these plays help educate the public about genetic genealogy and personal genomics, which of course is always a very beneficial thing, especially as we head towards a future where genetic testing will play such a large role in our lives.”