The DNA Trail: From Swab to Stage / by R. Sheth


March 28, 2010
By Jamil Khoury

In an unpredictable encounter between art and science, seven playwrights from Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds agreed to take DNA tests and then write short plays exploring their ancestry and identity. Jamil Khoury, artistic director of Silk Road Theatre Project, describes the project’s genesis.

The idea of commissioning seven playwrights—Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, Elizabeth Wong, and me—to each take a genealogical DNA test and write short plays in response to the results of these tests occurred to me while having lunch with a colleague back in 2007. What began as a standard “how can we collaborate?” conversation segued into a lively repartee about science, art, genetics, and popular culture’s growing fascination with the phenomena of DNA. Concurrent to our riffing over Cobb salad were conversations at Silk Road Theatre Project about the commissioning of new plays. That these streams would somehow intersect is the miracle of artistic ecology, spawning what I would later call The DNA Trail: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion. Seeing that such a distinguished group of playwrights agreed to take this journey with me (responding affirmatively to my invitation typically within the number of seconds it took to explain the concept) is testimony both to the power of ancestry and that innate desire to discover something new and unexpected about ourselves.

But before delving further into The DNA Trail, allow me to contextualize the piece within the mission and history of Silk Road Theatre Project. In 2002 my life partner, Malik Gillani, and I co-founded Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago as a creative and proactive response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and as an antidote to theories surmising a “clash of civilizations,” a dangerous thesis that was fast gaining traction among key policymakers and opinion shapers. Corresponding to our respective strengths, Malik was to be the company’s executive director and I the artistic director. We developed a mission statement for SRTP that read: Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds whose works address themes relevant to the peoples of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities. Through the mediums of theater, video, education, and advocacy, we aim to deepen and expand representation in American culture.

Painfully aware that the consequences of 9/11 were bound to reverberate for years to come, Malik and I, from our respective Pakistani American and Arab American backgrounds, felt compelled to create a company that could educate, promote dialogue, and heal rifts through the transformative power of theater. That theater would be the medium in which we’d advance cultural change seemed a given, a decision dictated by our mutual love of theater and my vocation as a playwright. Tragically, in December 2003, a year and a half after setting course, the imperative of our decision was horrifically reinforced when Malik’s brother Nader was murdered in Atlanta in what police declared an anti-Muslim hate crime.

It was our activist natures that propelled us to respond to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments sweeping the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Sharing a keen appreciation for the role art plays in fostering understanding between peoples, the goal was to create a theater that would counter negative portrayals of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation that was authentic, multifaceted, and grounded in human experience. Conversely, we wanted to create a forum for introspection and debate among Chicago’s Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, and bring to the forefront issues and realities all too often dismissed in our communities as “controversial,” “uncomfortable,” or “nonexistent.”

It wasn’t long before our idea expanded beyond the Middle Eastern and Muslim realms. In attempting to conjure a metaphor for an aesthetic that was both cross-cultural and poly-cultural, we kept bumping into random and repeated references to the historic Silk Road. The term “Silk Road” refers to the great trade routes that originated in China and extended across Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe, from the second century bce until about the sixteenth century ce. The dominant land routes connected China to Syria and adjoined to sea routes, creating an East-West corridor linking Japan to Italy. These transcontinental caravans resulted not only in trade, of which silk was an important commodity, but also in tremendous cross-cultural interaction among the peoples of the regions; interaction that fostered the exchange of ideas and the fusion of art and philosophy. As the legacy of the Silk Road was one associated with rich traditions of oral narrative, epic poetry, and storytelling, it would serve our theater both as the sought- for metaphor as well as a geographic guide. It soon became obvious that we had stumbled upon the very “road map” to our vision.

If the Silk Road stretched from Japan to Italy, so would our theater, albeit in a very twenty-first century, diasporic, Chicago kind of way. Ever mindful of the fact that America’s relationships with countries of the Silk Road had become characterized by conflict and complexity, we felt it important to diffuse people’s fears with the empathy that emerges when we find ourselves in someone else’s story. Identifying on a very visceral, human level with those we deem scary or alien or other is where social change begins. And if, as we maintain, representation begins at home, then as artistic director I would follow a rule that I coined the “playwright/protagonist imperative.” In selecting the plays we produce, the playwright must be of an Asian, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean background (including mixed backgrounds), and the protagonist, or central character, must also be of said background. The decision to produce primarily American playwrights who hail from the communities about which they write would align the company’s subjective voice with a hybrid of experiences: American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean.

Inadvertently, perhaps, we ended up constructing an identity politic that allowed an Asian story, a Middle Eastern story, and a Mediterranean story to inhabit the same plane, to coexist inclusive of one another and in dialogue with one another. A Japanese story and an Indian story suddenly became my stories. Our vocabulary quickly expanded to incorporate such terms as Silk Road playwrights, Silk Road plays, Silk Road actors, and Silk Road communities, with SRTP becoming the nation’s first-ever theater company dedicated to representing such a diverse grouping of peoples and cultures. In giving voice to playwrights seldom heard on the American stage, we committed ourselves to integrating their plays within the canon of American theater.

But our work was not to be celebratory or self-congratulatory. We would not exist to instill ethnic pride or self-esteem or to make Silk Road communities “look good.” Neat, happy endings replete with “ethnic revelry” and joyous outbursts of folklore and dance had no place on our stage. The exotic and the Orientalist would be critiqued, not objectified. My job was to seek out strong narrative plays, with an onus on producing great art. SRTP would be defined by complex, three-dimensional, sometimes painful portrayals of the human condition, stories inhabited neither by angels nor demons but by people, flawed and full of contradictions. We would not shy away from overtly political plays or from “airing dirty laundry.” The spotlight would focus on conflicts within communities and between communities. Feminist and queer content would have a home at Silk Road. If the plays angered or offended certain segments of our communities, then so be it. Mirrors can be cathartic, but they can also be threatening, which segues us back to The DNA Trail and an unpredictable kind of encounter, one between art and science.

I believe that in this age of shifting boundaries and fluctuating identities, art and science have more to say to each other than perhaps meets the eye. Conversely, American identity politics and race narratives have historically eschewed science. Thus, in enlisting the support of genealogical DNA testing, a highly contested, sometimes controversial field of scientific inquiry (not to be confused with medical and criminal DNA testing or paternity testing), I wanted to uncover a new language for addressing our national obsession with hyphens and ethnic categories. It wasn’t any particular scientific ideas about DNA that inspired me, but rather curiosity as to how ancestry and genetics inform our socially constructed selves. The tests were simply a means to an end. I knew the accuracy of the tests were subject to scientific skepticism and ethical debate. And I was troubled by the many companies selling ancestral DNA tests online using language that sounded oddly therapeutic or “self-affirming” or biologically determinist, pandering to insecurities while stoking hopes of “noble lineage.”

To our astonishment, the journey from swab to stage proved remarkably smooth. We commissioned seven playwrights, all of diverse Silk Road backgrounds, and each of us scraped the insides of our cheeks with something resembling a Q-tip and submitted a swab of our saliva to Family Tree DNA. Within six weeks we received our test results, which should in no way be construed as suggesting we understood our test results. In July 2008 we brought the playwrights to Chicago for the first of three weekend meetings, at which time we met with geneticists, genealogists, DNA counselors, and a DNA ethicist. The experts helped us decipher and comprehend our test results, spawning fascinating conversations around a range of topics, including the role of genetics in society’s ongoing nature-versus-nurture debates.

The playwrights then returned to their respective hometowns and months later began sending me first drafts of their plays. In August 2009 the playwrights flew back to Chicago for a workshop of the seven plays, an experience that exceeded everyone’s expectations, engendering a highly collaborative, richly supportive, and artistically dynamic atmosphere. Finally, in February 2010, three weeks into rehearsals for the actual production of The DNA Trail, the playwrights came back, this time to see the plays on their feet and to work on final rewrites, revisions, and changes. What began as seven individual playwrights with varying degrees of connectedness to one another has, over the course of the project, become a family of colleagues, friends, and, I suspect, future collaborators, who created a cohesive, unified piece of theater with strong thematic through-lines and an identifiable narrative arc—distinct genres, styles, and voices, all marshaled to serve one grand tale.

Individually and collectively, overtly or subtly, we are exploring what it means to be both American citizens and global citizens. By unpeeling the layers of “past and present,” “us and them,” these plays are contributing to our difficult, often contentious public discourse about citizenship and nationality.

***

Perhaps the greatest realization for me in this whole endeavor has been the recognition that artists and scientists tread on common ground. Allowing for that fact that I’m a layman when it comes to science, and an unabashed social constructionist at that, I discovered along the trail an affinity for scientists somehow analogous to the affinities that propel me as an artist. This newfound kinship was rooted in the elusively obvious. Artists and scientists are questioners and seekers, explorers and discoverers, dissenters and nonconformists, rarely satisfied with convention, the status quo, or established “truths.” We create art and science because we must. We view the human condition as evolutionary, a work-in-progress, full of mystery. We doubt, we challenge, we reimagine, and in so doing, we often upset people. Thus, artists and scientists are easily deemed suspect, relegated to the margins of society, scapegoated and ostracized, sometimes persecuted. It’s no coincidence that the enemies of art (religious absolutists, political reactionaries) are also often the enemies of science. In materializing The DNA Trail, I learned that the same populist fears and furies that have historically been directed against artists have also taken aim at scientists. I started to understand that artists and scientists are, in many respects, the mirror reflection of each other.

Producing The DNA Trail has affirmed for me the old adage that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. It demonstrates that a small, relatively young company like Silk Road Theatre Project can attract a stellar group of highly accomplished artists to create an original piece of theater that is groundbreaking and exciting. It reminds me that despite the myriad of challenges facing the American theater today, unique and important theater is being created across the country, often merging large ambition with modest resources and wielding astonishing results. It also reminds me that when it comes to matters of importance, matters that affect us all, the theater does indeed have a lot to say and a lot to offer. Indeed, the theater has extraordinary DNA.

Chicago

This essay was first published in the March issue of WLT magazine and is featured on its website at worldliteraturetoday.com.