By: Sandi Durell
Do we all come from the same gene pool? From the original Eve (now called Mitochondrial Eve? If so, race is fiction, a myth, it’s about our migratory patterns laments genetic anthropologist Jillian (Tina Benko) as she takes on the battle of gathering genomic clues to prove her points and discover what makes you, you! But has she gone too far?
Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer loves to write about what she reads and became enthralled with a recent court case between the Havasupai Native American tribe (living on the floor of the Grand Canyon) and Arizona State Univ. battling informed consent, the title of this dramedy, and a co-production by Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Project.
This very appealing 21st century story offers a peek into science’s right to challenge cultures, customs and the intricate stories and tales that are passed down from generation to generation . . . the glue that makes you, you, aside from DNA.
Jillian’s personal story plays a big role in her quest for scientific truth . . . an Alzheimer’s gene that weighs heavily on her own future, inherited from her mother who died at age 34, as well as that of her 4 year old daughter (with whom she fears real bonding), that forces her husband Graham, of different race and color (Pun Bandhu), to take on the role of mothering. Her relationship with her colleague Ken (Jesse J. Perez), a social anthropologist, is her liason to Arella, spokesperson for the Tribe, (Delanna Studi – an actual member of the Cherokee Nation) and whom she eventually persuades to allow blood samples to be taken from tribal members to find out why this group of Native Americans is dying off from a high incidence of diabetes.
In this 95 minute, no intermission, adaptation, there are light moments that make fun of our racial divide in the form of dialogue from a sometimes Greek chorus of a talented cast, that includes Myra Lucretia Taylor, all taking on additional roles, including Ms. Studi who becomes 4 year old daughter Natalie.
The study resulted not only in finding clues to diabetes, but unbeknownst to the participating Tribe members who signed the consent, neglecting to read the fine print, other studies that included migration patterns, alcoholism and other diseases, all challenging the very roots of their culture and religious beliefs. When the discovery was made, they wanted their blood back.
The story weaves easily in and through Jillian’s personal challenges as the very authentic Ms. Benko must deal with her own family and colleagues and the greater questions that need to be answered scientifically.
The telling backdrop is a wall that flashes DNA codes against stacks of file drawers cleverly conceived by Wilson Chin, aided by Jeanette Ol-Suk Yew’s projections and Matthew Richards’ lighting design.
Director Liesl Tommy moves her players around with swift aplomb holding the audience’s curiosity.
Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd (229 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues) through September 13th. (212) 840-9705
*Photos: James Leynse