The DNA Trail at Pierce Hall / by R. Sheth

March 10, 2010
By Jessica Palmer

What happens when science meets theater? To find out, seven playwrights took Q-Tips to the insides of their cheeks, swabbed, and mailed the results to a DNA analysis company. Six weeks later the results were mailed back, and the playwrights set to work on creating original pieces of theater inspired by the experience.

Silk Road Theatre Project is a kind of DNA trail unto itself; founded in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, its primary mission is to create a greater understanding of Middle Eastern and Muslim people. This idea quickly expanded to encompass the geographical landmass known as the silk road, the ancient trading route that stretches from Japan to Italy, and was responsible for cultural exchanges as well as silk and other commodities. Among the many cultural artifacts that were traded along the route were stories, narratives and poems. Silk Road Theatre Project continues this tradition by showcasing the works of playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

The DNA Trail travels around the world as seven pieces of theater are brought to life by a highly adaptable cast, and very clever use of a spare set. Topics range from Elizabeth Wong's Finding Your Inner Zulu , in which a Chinese-American basketball player travels, Fantastic Voyage style, into her DNA to see if it's possible to "turn on" the height gene so that she can go pro, to Lina Patel's That Could Be You , an anthropomorphized explanation of DNA and an exploration of adoption and its inherent issues of origin. Moods ranged from funerary, as with Philip Kan Gotanda's piece Child is Father to Man , a monologue delivered by a man whose father has just passed away, to Jamil Khoury's wryly comic WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole .

Khoury, who is Founding Artistic Director at Silk Road Theatre Project, explores the confusion and oft repeated questions that come from inheriting a mixed ancestry. "You don't look like a Jamil," Clayton Stamper, who plays the role of Jamil, is told numerous times by people who assume upon hearing his name that he must be African-American. WASP gets the best visual pun of the evening when Khurram Mozaffar, in the role of Arab Man, asks Jamil: "you mean show the Arab in a good light?" only to be perfectly spot-lit from above.

Even the theater space evokes the feelings of twoness that come from inheriting mixed ancestry and culture; located in the basement of The First United Methodist Church at The Chicago Temple Building, the audience sits in the bowels of a mixed-use building whose original purpose was to observe faith. There is more than one story to the building, and more than one story to each piece of The DNA Trail.