Thoughtful Drama in Silk Road’s DNA Trail / by R. Sheth

March 9, 2010
By Hedy Weiss

In a program note for "The DNA Trail," Jamil Khoury, artistic director of the ever-enterprising Silk Road Theatre Project, observes: "In this age of shifting boundaries and fluctuating identities, perhaps science and art have more to say to each other than meets the eye [and] in enlisting the support of genealogical DNA testing, a highly contested, sometimes controversial field of scientific inquiry, I wanted to uncover new language for addressing our national obsession with hyphens and ethnic categories."

Mission accomplished. His company's world premiere production, comprised of seven short plays commissioned from as many different playwrights (each of whom was asked to take a genealogical DNA test, which suggests how living individuals compare to historic populations, rather than providing medical information), is, as advertised, "a genealogy about ancestry, identity and utter confusion."

The production, smartly directed by Steve Scott and performed by seven deftly morphing actors, also is a handsome, quirky, frequently moving, thought-provoking exploration that considers its subject in myriad ways while taking some wildly unexpected detours.

Khoury's autobiographical entry, "WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole" (which suggests only a small part of the writer's own ancestry) is at once comic and angry. Clayton Stamper, Khoury's alter ego, is a gay suburban fellow with Syrian Christian and other roots. He encounters a series of people (played by Melissa Kong, Fawzia Mirza, Anthony Peeples, Jennifer Shin and Cora Vander Broek) in different situations -- as well as a hip, unhyphenated "Arab Man" (Khurram Mozaffar, a fine actor who also happens to be an attorney by day) -- who mistakes him for many things he is not.

The curtain-raiser, Elizabeth Wong's "Finding Your Inner Zulu," homes in on a Chinese-American girl -- a championship high school basketball player -- who rails against her DNA because she is too short to go pro. In "That Could Be You," Lina Patel cleverly addresses issues of nature versus nurture as two couples meet at a surrogate parents/adoption clinic. And in Velina Hasu Houston's "Mother Road," sisters (one put up for adoption, another raised by her birth mother) confront the issue of their possible breast cancer "inheritance."

Indian-born, L.A.-based Shishir Kurup (author of the bristling "Merchant on Venice," staged at Silk Road in 2007) has contributed "Bolt from the Blue." Kurup is a dazzling writer who can toss out some very funny lines (whether about Indian mothers or condoms), but this is a mostly dark work in which a thoughtful man communicates by e-mail with his profoundly troubled younger cousin a continent away. Mentions of a history of mental illness in the family hint at what can (possibly) be genetically transmitted.

The goofiest work on the bill is David Henry Hwang's coming-of-age tale, "A Very DNA Reunion," in which a hormonally zapped teen boy conjures Cleopatra, Genghis Khan and a Ninja Dude in his bedroom. His hope is that he will be able to inherit great powers from these most ancient "ancestors."

The program closes with "Child Is Father to Man," Philip Kan Gotanda's beautiful, elegiac meditation on the death of his father and on his own feeling of being the black sheep in the family -- an artist, with no heirs, yet with powerful connections of many sorts to his own dad. Mozaffar again excels.

The sleek, sophisticated work of set and lighting designers Rebecca A. Barrett and Lee Keenan -- who have devised a wall of rotating panels overlaid with a DNA patterning design and mirrors -- serves as the unifying backdrop for all these plays, and it is inspired.

True, not every entry in "The DNA Trail" is memorable. But there is enough solid genetic material here to make this a most viable "entity."