Hiking the DNA Trail: 7 Playwrights Reckon with Science's Most Personal Revelations

By Houston, Velina Hasu | American Theatre, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Hiking the DNA Trail: 7 Playwrights Reckon with Science's Most Personal Revelations


Houston, Velina Hasu, American Theatre


THERE IS A BIT OF A YELLOW BRICK ROAD FACTOR to DNA testing. Perhaps you seek a sense of "home," knowledge of your origins, a feeling of belonging--and the testing is supposed to provide a pathway. Yet, by most accounts, what you find is never what you expect or desire. Sometimes it has less power to get you "home" than a splendid Sancerre Rouge.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Without a playwriting commission three years ago from Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project (SRTP), I probably never would have swabbed a cheek. I was content with being a mix of Japanese, American Indian and African American. There was a nice security in knowing my ethnicity (although now I know that it's only my ethnicity-lite, if you will, and not my deep ancestry, which of course I never fully considered until the testing). True, being content with ethnicity-lite is akin to living atop yellow bricks (or on the Earth's crust, while never considering its inner core), but I had been reared to embrace my multi-ethnicity and did so wholeheartedly from an early age. I thought of DNA testing as a pastime for those who wanted to prove they were (or were not) something in particular.

My interest was piqued, however, by the fact that SRTP's artistic director Jamil Khoury and executive director Malik Gillani were offering what sounded like a collaborative literary salon too brilliant to miss: Seven playwrights would take a DNA test and write short plays in response. I could not resist the good company I'd be in: Jamil, Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel and Elizabeth Wong. And I was intrigued by the sport of it, not to mention the chance to watch new plays fight their way out of that jumble of humanity and science.

Produced in association with Chicago's Goodman Theatre and directed by Goodman associate producer Steve Scott, the multiphase project proceeded from conception and commissioning to the ordering and execution of DNA tests, a convening in Chicago in July '08 to interface with DNA experts, and an August '09 workshop, interspersed with rehearsals and several writing periods. It culminates this month with the March 6 opening of The DNA Trail: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion.

Jamil initially came up with the idea because he was intrigued with the relationship of biology and genetics to socially constructed notions of ethnicity, ancestry and race. Finding DNA testing websites' language too therapeutic or self-affirming, Jamil wondered if their true intent was to "pander to insecurities while stoking hopes of 'noble lineage,'" or to be "downright biologically determinist, in an icky, frightening way." Nevertheless, he soldiered on and, with Malik, chose playwrights who would uphold the theatre's desire to reclaim narrative and illustrate that representation of identity begins at home.

While multiple-writer collaborations usually make me wary, this one had promise due to the fact that SRTP understood it couldn't work unless the writers and other collaborators (including Goodman literary manager Tanya Palmer and literary associate Neena Arndt as dramaturgs) could be in the same room together, more than once--not an easy feat in a lackluster economy and with the seven playwrights living in various corners of the U.S. So I jumped in with enthusiasm and open-mindedness, thinking that I'd learn something about my ethnic history and also grow as an artist as a result of the collaboration.

WHAT DID MY COLLEAGUES HOPE TO get from the experience? David hoped the tests might answer family mysteries, such as confirming a. British or Filipino ancestor, which would dovetail with some of his favorite themes: "the mutability of identity, the unreliability of race as a construct, and the degree to which ethnic identity is a role we play." For Philip, there was the hope that in a past life he'd been "Portuguese or Panamanian or something exotic other than just Japanese.

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