When she was a child, says Arella, a Native American character in the play “Informed Consent,” “I’d hear about, ‘the white man did this and the white man did that.’ I thought there was one white man and he did all these terrible things. Like, if they had just locked up that awful white man everything would have been great.”
By the end of “Informed Consent,” Arella and the rest of her tribe believe that one awful (albeit well-meaning) white woman has done a terrible thing.
Arella is one of the surviving members of a tribe that lives at the floor of the Grand Canyon in the play by Deborah Zoe Laufer that is inspired by a true event, the conflict between the Havasupai Tribe and scientific researchers at Arizona State University. It is a dramatization in equal parts admirable and troubling.
Arella’s nemesis is Jillian, a genetic anthropologist at a local college, who is asked to test the tribe to see if there is a genetic link that explains their unusually high incidence of diabetes. She persuades them to give samples of their blood, something they have never done before, because they view their blood as sacred. When they discover that Jillian has used the samples to conduct studies outside of one strictly for diabetes, the tribe reacts in anger, saying they did not consent to any other studies, and that such studies conflict with their ancient traditions and beliefs. They file a lawsuit to get their blood back.
At a time when it seems that every other new TV series (Extant, Humans, Mr. Robot, Fear the Walking Dead) can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and technology, “Informed Consent” offers a more sophisticated look at a whole host of issues raised by its specific scientific focus. The play makes an impressive attempt to present each side of the dispute with respect. It also gives us a glimpse into the implications of the extraordinary advances in genome research — what our DNA can tell us about our history and, increasingly, our future. Against a set design that includes simulated cells and genetic codes, the performers drop into the play some fascinating food for thought:
“There is a single mutation in the genes of every one of us that we can trace back to one woman in Africa, only 150,000 years ago. “
“All humans are 99.9 percent the same genetically….Only .1 percent different.”
“Race isn’t biological. There are no genes that indicate race…..All of the things we see as race are about migratory patterns.”
But for all the fascination inherent in the subject, Laufer and director Liesl Tommy’s approach undermines the story in two major ways.
Laufer has said she did extensive research for her play, visiting the tribe in the Grand Canyon, and working in a genetics lab. But “Informed Consent” avoids the real names (even of the college), and for good reason; there are deliberate fabrications. The playwright, for example, adds an extra layer to Jillian’s biography: Jillian’s mother died from early-onset Alzheimer’s, Jillian herself has the genetic marker that indicates the likelihood of the disease, and she fears her four-year-old daughter Natalie might have it too. This creates a conflict between Jillian and her husband Graham, who doesn’t want Natalie to be tested, or, if tested, not told the test results – a lengthy subplot that both underscores one of the central themes of the play (Can knowledge be a bad thing?) and gives Jillian a motivation for her ambition and impatience: She wants to make her mark in science before she loses her capacity to do so.
There is no early-onset Alzheimer’s in the biography of the actual researcher at the center of the controversy, Therese Ann Markow, who now holds the Amlyn Chair in Life Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. Such fiddling around makes “Informed Consent” factually untrustworthy. If the playwright wanted a story that served up more drama than the actual one in Arizona, or that provided a better vehicle to explore multiple themes, why not create a wholly new story, shorn of the recognizable details of this specific case? As it is, Laufer’s fabrications are somewhat ironic, given Jillian’s oft-stated search for the unadorned truth, and especially troublesome in light of accusations that the news accounts that turned Laufer on to the controversy in the first place were themselves overblown (“Is the Havasupai Indian Case a Fairy Tale?”)
“Informed Consent” is cast with the familiar New York actors Pun Bandhu (Wit) as Jillian’s husband Graham and Tina Benko in the role of Jillian, as well as New York newcomer DeLanna Studi as Arella. (Studi also portrays Jillian’s four-year-old daughter Natalie.) Benko has performed in such adventurous fare as Ivo Van Hove’s production of “Scenes from a Marriage,” and Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and one senses that the “Informed Consent” team wants to be seen as theatrically bold as well. In the cast of five, three (all except Bandhu and Benko) portray as many as four different characters apiece, with an obvious effort at non-traditional casting – a reflection of the geneticist’s view of race as a social construct. Way too often this multiple casting is outright confusing. It doesn’t help that the individual actors occasionally perform as a kind of chaotic chorus; now and then one interrupts a main character to tell them they’re digressing with an irrelevant (and longwinded) story. This seems tied up with another one of the main themes the playwright is presenting – how each of us is a storyteller who wants to tell our story our own way. Who gets to tell their story is a complex issue wrapped up in power and politics.
The bombardment of multiple themes and theatrical noodling is surely meant to keep the audience engaged, but ultimately has the opposite effect. This is too bad, since so much that the creative team attempts in “Informed Consent,”a joint production of Primary Stages and the Ensemble Studio Theater, is something new and important, from the straightforward depiction of contemporary Native Americans to a serious exploration of science that involves not a single android malfunction nor zombie apocalypse.
At the Duke at 42nd Street
Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, Costume Design by Jacob A. Climer, Lighting Design by Matthew Richards, Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord, Projection Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Casting by Stephanie Klapper Casting.
Cast: Pun Bandhu, Tina Benko, Jesse J. Perez , DeLanna Studi, Myra Lucretia Taylor
Running time: 95 minutes
Informed Consent is set to run through September 13, 2015