When DNA Takes Center Stage / by R. Sheth

March 18, 2010
By Lori Andrews

("On the Edges of Science and Law" is a blog of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law.)

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Chicagoans Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani took a unique approach to counter anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. They formed the Silk Road Theater Company, offering plays which show the complex, multifaceted experiences of people of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean descent. Their productions fight stereotypes with nuanced stories of human similarity and differences.

Now, eight years and multiple awards later, Khoury and Gillani have tackled another complicated and misunderstood phenomenon--genetic testing. For their latest production, seven playwrights of Silk Road ancestry took genealogical DNA tests and wrote short plays, which are joined together in The DNA Trail. Performances continue until April 4 at the Silk Road Theater Project, 77 W. Washington, Chicago.

As the former chair of a federal advisory commission to the Human Genome Project, I was prepared to cringe at any genetic determinism in the plays. I'd been in countless meetings with scientists who tried to reduce complex people to genetic explanations. One researcher made the controversial claim that, because Maoris were once warriors, he'd searched for and discovered a "warrior" gene in the Maori of New Zealand which makes them more aggressive and violent. Tariana Turia, a co-leader of the Maori party, questioned why researchers were even looking for the warrior gene in their blood. "Once were warriors?" Turia said to the Daily Telegraph. "Once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers."

Before the play began, I opened my printed program, which featured bios of the seven playwrights and a brief description of each play. The first playwright, Elizabeth Wong, started her bio by saying, "I'm in the N9a haplogroup." She then went on to say that she thought she was pureblood Chinese, but that the test showed she was linked to a woman out of Africa.

Oh, oh, I thought. I'd seen data showing that the genealogical tests are not very accurate. When a journalist sent her DNA to two different companies, she got conflicting results and news that conflicted with her families' oral history about her ancestry. The snafu is that 99 percent of our DNA is like anyone else's, including the people who lived thousands of years ago. Depending what stretch of the three billion genetic bases the test scrutinizes, I could receive a test result that declares me related to anyone who currently lives or who ever lived.

When the performances began, though, my concerns about determinism vanished. The playwrights had caught the nuances, complexities, heart-wrenching conflicts, and occasional zaniness of DNA testing. Wong's own play, "Finding Your Inner Zulu ," took two sisters on a journey through their DNA that showed how all of us have genetic strengths and weaknesses. The plays added new twists to questions of identity (Jamil Khoury’s "WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole ") and family (Velina Hasu Houston’s "Mother Road "). David Henry Hwang's contribution, "A Very DNA Reunion," is roaringly funny. After a son who lives with his parents upsets them by charging a DNA test on their credit card, his purported ancestors--Ghengis Khan, a Ninja, and Cleopatra--show up in his bedroom to help him deal with his folks. On the other end of the emotional continuum, Shishir Kurup's captivating and well-acted "Bolt from the Blue" provides a gripping portrait of a family separated by distance dealing with suicide and the propensity to mental illness.

The complexities and significance of genetic testing are laid out in videos on the theater's website and in essays that cover eight pages in the program. With the same patience that the Silk Road Theater Project has sought to explain the dreams and goals of discriminated-against people, the Project gives audience members the tools to understand genetic testing.

The extraordinary Nancy Wexler, whose research was responsible for the discovery of the Huntington gene, once said that DNA tests are like card games. It doesn't matter what hand you are dealt, it is how you play it. Once again, the Silk Road Theater Project has played its hand flawlessly.