REVIEW: The DNA Trail (Silk Road Theatre Project)

Silk Road’s “DNA Trail” doesn’t lead far

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Silk Road Theatre Project presents
 
The DNA Trail
 

Conceived by Jamil Khoury
Directed by Steve Scott
Featuring plays by: Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, Jamil Khoury, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, and Elizabeth Wong
at
Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington (map)
through April 4th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The foundational concept behind Silk Road Theatre Project’s The DNA Trail is an inspired one. Seven playwrights of Asian descent have their cheeks swabbed. Those little swabs are analyzed by DNA researchers. The results reveal the ancestral background of each playwright, even pointing as far back as the original cradle of humanity, East Africa. Then the experience is mined for theatrical gold. Each playwright is obliged to write a short piece about the results, the experience, or really anything relating to ancestry, genealogy, or the study of DNA. The whole process is a bold mingling of science and the arts, two forces that should be linked together more often.

dna-trail1 With such a dashing idea, the production could’ve been enlightening. Unfortunately, the results are tepid and meandering, leaving much to be desired.

The seven playwrights are Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, Tony-award winner (and Pulitzer finalist) David Henry Hwang, Silk Road artistic director Jamil Khoury, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, and Elizabeth Wong. The whole hullabaloo was directed by Steve Scott. The plays range from family dramas, wild farces, and bizarre journeys into the mitochondria.

The last play of the night, Child is Father to Man by Philip Kan Gotanda, is by far the best. It is a one-man show, honestly and thoughtfully performed by Khurram Mozaffar. Gotanda’s play is a meditation on the death of a father, with the son wondering about their relationship, the qualities that are inherited through bloodline, and the qualities that are shaped by life. It’s simple, straightforward, and beautiful. The play proves that something substantial can be accomplished with so few pages. If only this came through in the other short works.

Wong’s Finding Your Inner Zulu is a cute start to the night, but fails to make a real impact. Revolving around two estranged sisters, breast cancer, and a moon goddess, Houston’s Mother Road, leaves the audience behind in confusion after a few minutes. Kurup’s Bolt from the Blue has the same effect. The 12-15 minute play is actually a pretty difficult medium, and Houston and Kurup overextend themselves.

Khoury’s WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole is funny and revealing. Clayton Stamper plays Khoury himself, who deals with the fact that he is a white guy named ‘Jamil.’ The play, through direct address and several scenes, sheds some light on the mission and founding of Silk Road Theatre Project, an interesting by-product of the piece. That Could Be You, Patel’s contribution, dramatizes the science behind DNA in a pretty hilarious way. I was disappointed by Hwang’s piece, A Very DNA Reunion, a homage to the history-defying first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls but lacking the bite.

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Scott’s direction is top notch and Lee Keenan’s lights and set are remarkable. The ensemble includes Mozaffar, Stamper, Jennifer Shin, Cora Vander Broek, Melissa Kong, Fawzia Mirza, and Anthony Peeples, and all of the actors do a decent job juggling between each individual show. There is obviously a lot of talent going into this production from nearly every angle. On the whole, the texts just aren’t strong enough to support.

Some of the writers are too married to the project, like Wong and Hwang. Taken out of this specific context, some of the plays wouldn’t work as stand-alone pieces. If we didn’t already know the Trail’s process, a couple would seem oddly obscure. But because the process is revealed in the program, they feel redundant. If everyone could abstract and interpret the project as well as Gotanda, this would be a winning short play festival. When the topic is as significant as the building blocks that make us human beings, Silk Road could have delivered so much more.

 
Rating: ★★
 

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REVIEW: Blue Shadow (Lifeline Theatre)

A joyous “Blue Shadow”

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Blue Shadow

by Nambi E. Kelley, with Xavier Kelley
music and lyrics by
Joe Plummer
directed by Ilesa Duncan
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 2nd (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

There are so many tests in life. As children, some of the first we have occur on the play lot and then later in school, ranging from how to make friends to how to make it off of the playground without being teased. Back in the day, there weren’t many guides for this kind of stuff; if a child was not popular then the dice often fell the same way your entire life. These days, we are encouraged to celebrate our differences and somehow find common ground. It was from this premise that I took my niece Lexie and my nephew David to see The Blue Shadow at the Lifeline Theatre.

I grew up on shows like “Captain Kangaroo” and “Garfield Goose”. Questions of national origin were never addressed (although I suspected something subversive about Mr. Green Jeans). By the time “Sesame Street” and “Zoom” came along, I was well into junior high and getting plenty of doses of cold reality thanks to the world seemingly getting smaller via the evening news.

BlueShadow2The Blue Shadow, by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, is lovingly adapted for the stage from a book written with her nephew Xavier Kelley. When walking up the to theatre, there was a gaggle of excited kids racing us to the door. I got the book and CD for my young guests (which I recommend as a fine way to continue the positive energy of the production after going home). I introduced Lexie and David to Ms. Kelley and her nephew Xavier, who both autographed the book. It was a good example to set for the children – something to aspire to in perhaps writing their stories.

When we were ushered to our seats, it wasn’t long before members of the cast, in character, filtered through the audience. Dawn Pryor  sat down in the aisle next to my nephew and introduced herself as her character Zuri. Her exuberant smile and bouncing braids immediately enthralled David. Ms. Pryor engaged him in a conversation and I admit to being charmed as well. When Miguel Nunez introduced himself as Ernesto, I scoffed at his claim of being ten years old. Mr. Nunez retorted with a very convincing “uh-huh I’m ten!” It was a clever means of involving the young audience and then focusing them on the stage.

Ben Chang plays the role of Wei – a cool kid wearing headphones who launches into an audience participation rap. Wei is joined onstage by Africa (Pryor), Meso-America (Nunez), and the European Roksana (Mallory Nees). A teacher is heard in a booming voice-over, telling the children to take their seats and welcome the new student Shadow (Susaan Jamshidi). Jamshidi plays Shadow with perfectly awkward rebellion and tentative shyness at the same time. Bursting onstage wearing a heavy metal tee shirt and dark glasses, the other schoolkids immediately make negative presumptions about her. But the students warm up to her as Shadow impresses them with her Wikipedia knowledge. As the children introduce themselves, they share their origins on a giant inflatable globe. Shadow does not know how to explain her ancestry so easily as the other kids and becomes quite blue. The song “Shadow’s Blues” is funny and forlorn as the audience is reminded that one does not have to get their heart stomped on to have the blues – the blues can come from a yearning to recognized and to belong.  (The music and lyrics by Joe Plummer are a welcome respite from the bleating bubblegum drivel usually peddled to children.)

What follows is a colorful array of tales from the human diaspora. The cast brought my Rand McNally childhood memories to life, traversing the globe with folktales and songs familiar yet new. I admit to a love of the story of Baba Yaga featuring Vasilisa (Nees), the put-upon stepchild in the Russian version of the Cinderella story sans Prince Charming. The entire cast is involved in each tale but this was a wonder of identity switching and snappy dialogue with a great gross-out depiction of Baba Yaga’s meal request. I bow to the props department on getting an ‘ewww!’ from everyone.

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Each story is told to discover Shadow’s origins. After hearing tales from around the globe, she recalls a tale from her childhood of how moccasins were fashioned from buffalo skins. It is a story of mud and bunions with a great cameo by a buffalo that will delight all age groups.

The performances are full of such childlike exuberance that one forgets that these are adults on the stage performing as children. The cast embodies a frenetic energy that sincerely enjoys the material.  The musical performances are broadly drawn; designed to remain in a child’s mind well beyond the production’s close. The use of shadow puppets and great papier mache masks lends a wonderful live cartoon vibe that draws one further into each folktale; inspiring flights of imagination.

At the play’s conclusion, all sections of the globe are filled in and everyone has a story of discovery. The writing inspired curiosity for learning about other cultures for my niece and nephew. There is a trip to the Field Museum in my near future as well as a tour through the family tree and photo albums.

Ms. Kelley, the playwright, has an impressive theatre resume here in Chicago as well as on both coasts. I have fond memories of her performances and am very excited to see her coming accomplishments on the writing side. I’m also looking forward to following the blossoming talents of Kelly’s nephew, Xavier, who adapted “The Muddy Foot” – the pivotal story in finding Shadow’s cultural identity. Xavier is all of ten years old and quite an impressive young man.

Director Ilesa Duncan has staged a flowing and fast paced production with The Blue Shadow. Never once does the direction condescend to the young audience, which ranges from four years old and up. I am always amazed at the stagecraft of the productions at Lifeline Theatre. This is but one of the reasons that Chicago is America’s theatre leader.

 

Rating: ★★★

“The Blue Shadow” run Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 11:00am and 1:00pm through May 2, 2010. There are no performances on Easter Sunday, April 4th, 2010.

Ticket information is available at 773-761-4477 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1371 As always more information is available at www.lifelinetheatre.com

Please note that the cast is available after the performances to sign autographs and take pictures. Also the book and CD are available at the box office.

 

 

Video courtesy of Lifeline Video Library