The Silk Road Converges with The DNA Trail / by R. Sheth

March 28, 2010
By Ruth Smerling

Science meets art at the Silk Road Theatre. Back in 2007, seven playwrights underwent genealogical DNA tests: Jamil Khoury, Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, Elizabeth Wong. Each wrote a short play based on their findings. As Khoury to feedback from the playwrights, he became more and more enthusiastic he says: “What began as an industry standard,’how can we collaborate?’ conversation segued into a lively repartee about science, art, genetics, and pop culture’s growing fascination with the phenomena of DNA. 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 our innate desire to discover something new and unexpected about ourselves.”

The Silk Road Theatre is usually associated with hard-hitting drama steaming with political controversy. Recall how many times have you’ve left their shows not being able to take a side? Having fallen love with the antagonist who you believe was misunderstood? The DNA Trail goes even deeper and dares to delve into the molecular structure, that we take for granted, that makes us human and points out that our evolution has nothing to do with much of what we strive for in our daily lives. With the title shortened to The DNA Trail, the seven plays examine the sometimes profound, sometimes humorous and some very sad truths each playwright’s test results revealed.

Elizabeth Wong contributes the identity quest Finding Your Inner Zulu . Cricket (Jennifer Shin) is a high school basketball star being sought after by professional recruiters. Nevertheless, she’s very depressed, feeling “too short”. She and her sister Emma (Melissa Kong) travel through time to visit their ancestors who teach them a few things about their identity.

Velina Hasu Houston looks at how families are made with Mother Road where Perpetua (Jennifer Shin) goes to the Mojave Desert to find Eva (Fawzia Mirza), her step-sister, they know nothing of genetics, but do believe that they are somehow linked and need each other.

That Could Be You by Lina Patel muses on whether we are products of our environments or products of our genes. Addy (Cora Vander Brock), Teddy (Khurram Mozaffar), Cyndy (Melissa Kong) and Gene (Clayton Stamper) wonder if they would be the same person if they switched roles, despite their genetics, or would the environment rule who we are?

Artistic Director Jamil Khoury is played by Clayton Stamper in Wasp: White Arab Slovak Pole . Jamil fits none of the stereotypes. He has a name usually reserved for darker, swarthier men. He’s white and from the suburbs and of European ancestry by one parent. This work pokes fun at how we people veer out of their comfort zone when confronted with someone of mixed ethnicity.

Shishir Kurup’s Bolt from the Blue is the most heartbreaking of the seven plays. The play seems like it has little to do with DNA, but more to do with communication and family ties. Rishi (Khurram Mozaffar) is concerned for his cousin Hari (Clayton Stamper) who is thousands of miles away. Hari’s e-mails and cell phone calls all indicate that he is morbidly depressed and are Rishi’s only form of communication. Rishi is also pressured by his mother (Fawzia Mirza) who sends messages Rishi is obligated to convey that may make things even worse. As Rishi finds he is severely limited in his influence, Hari starts to deteriorate rapidly. This play is a gripping drama that echoes previous Silk Road work, where a harsh truth is revealed even though it is difficult to live with.

A Very DNA Reunion by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) is not a cure for Shishir Kurup’s Bolt from the Blue but comes just in time with comedy and an incredible performance by Fawzia Mirza. Bob (Clayton Stamper) is pressured by his family to get a job. He gets a DNA test that proves he comes from the same genetic line as Cleopatra (Fawzia Mirza) and Genghis Khan (Anthony Peeples). There is even a Ninja Dude (Khurram Mozaffar) in his line. His great ancestors make him believe that he is as regal as they. The comedy ensues when he tries to explain to his parents that he’s too “busy” to come down for dinner.

The show ends with the results of Philip Kan Gotanda’s DNA test. His results led him to the conclusion that Child is Father to Man . This very poetic title refers to a man (Khurram Mozaffar) who reflects on his life as his father nears death, finally understanding the role he had as someone’s child that led him to be someone’s father.

The DNA Trail is one of the most intelligent works of the millennium. Each play is thought-provoking and emotionally charged. The journey is well worth taking with family and friends. The seven separate works that merge into one and other seamlessly and the Olympic ensemble performing in repertory, enter different cultures, time zones and imaginary worlds with lightning precision.