BABEL at the Contemporary American Theater Festival probes the dilemmas that eugenics might present
Over the years, the Contemporary American Theater Festival has often demonstrated a fondness for science fiction. This year’s program includes a stellar representative of the genre, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s play babel“certified” while in utero as meeting the mandatory genetic risk profile, the child will face lifelong legal discrimination that will thwart most forms of professional fulfillment. Abortion is freely available and the resulting pressures to terminate pregnancies when a child is uncertified are intense, as is the misery of potential parents whose unborn child is deemed uncertifiable and likely a threat to the society. We witness how these dynamics play out with two friendly couples.
One, a same-sex couple, Dani (Kate MacCluggage) and Renee (Karen Li) are expecting (through in vitro fertilization). Renée carries the pregnancy. They will soon be confronted with the fact that the daughter within Renee will not be certifiable, since genetic testing reveals that the daughter is at unacceptable risk for antisocial behavior. Dani, with her certified privilege, will find it hard to conceive, let alone accept, an obstacle she can neither circumvent nor overcome. His chosen tactic, encouraging Renee to have an abortion (a matter of a simple injection) gets no buy-in from Renee. Her secondary tactic, trying to overthrow the uncooperative doctor who won’t certify the fetus, ends in tears.
The other couple, Ann (Lori Vega) and her husband Jamie (Carlo Alban), although they have no difficulty conceiving or obtaining certification, operate under the weight of a secret that one of them hides both from the world and from her spouse, directly linked to the social policy of encouraging future parents to terminate undeclared pregnancies. I won’t reveal the nature of the secret or the spouse maintaining it, but I will say that ultimately it impacts both marriages, and the couples are no longer friends.
The play ends with the two characters we most identify with, affirming the creative randomness of humanity and its reproductive process, and rejecting a “brave new world” fostered by the regime of genetic testing and abortion. And this rejection takes into account the potential cataclysm that could occur in the absence of such a regime. In a world such as the play imagines, in which natural resources have become scarce and humanity could well become extinct in a short time if the social cohesion and harmony necessary to manage these resources is destroyed – a real risk if too many dangerous people rise up to power – the benefits of the screening and abortion regime for weeding out deadly bad actors would be urgently appealed. (In a real world with so many bad actors in charge, that doesn’t seem like a fanciful argument. Antisocial behavior can really endanger the future of our politics and our species.) Both of these characters, however, opt for the spark of human creativity and its associated transgression, even at great potential cost. Given the same facts, many viewers might agree. And many might disagree.
It might seem that, with so many real and pressing issues in the world we inhabit, taking the time to consider this set of currently improbable dilemmas is somewhat frivolous. But that’s one of the beauties of science fiction: we’re allowed to consider dilemmas that aren’t ours – just embracing the cousins of those we struggle with. Its good; the art is on point. And this script is also up to snuff.
A lot of art went into this performance. A play like this with a lot of mysteries and revelations requires a director who can orchestrate the surprise, and Sharifa Yasmin and the cast kept me off base. At the same time, there has never been a break in humor and seriousness, testifying to a great mastery of tone. And I loved Jesse Dreikosen’s imaginative setting, which allowed for interesting and frequent spatial reshuffling of characters to emphasize meanings and relationships.
Babel, by Jacqueline Goldfinger, directed by Sharifa Yasmin, presented through July 31 by the Festival of Contemporary American Theater at the Marinoff Theater, 62 W. Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $38-$68 at link below or 681-240-2283 ext 1. Adult language, sexual behavior, sexual situations. All audience members will be required to show proof of their vaccination status and photo ID, and wear a mask when in theater.
Production photo credit: Seth Freeman.