The Sequence: a play about the Human Genome Project

It turns out that Pasadena has a wonderful little theater called The Boston Court.  It’s a non-profit organization, producing some classics, but perhaps more interestingly, also some first-run original pieces by SoCal playwrites.  Michelle saw an adaptation of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there last year, and we went and saw 1001, a story weaving the Arabian Nights with commentary on the modern Arab-Israeli coflict and the War on Terror.  The casts are essentially dedicated amateurs – the auditions page lists a $300 rehearsal stipend, plus $25/performance.  The space is so small that there is no need for amplified sound, and the sets are fairly minimalist.  They have student discounts and matinees, and late night salons for discussion after the plays are performed.  I have a hard time imagining a better setting and scale for theater.  Even better, it’s easy biking distance, and they seem to have a bent toward plays that are relevant to the modern world.

On Friday, we went to see The Sequence, by Paul Mullin, who has also written about Louis Slotin’s death during the Manhattan Project due to a criticality accident while “tickling the dragon’s tail’, and The Ten Thousand Things, an exploration of the meaning of deep time in human society, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now.  The Sequence is a play about the Human Genome Project, and the race between Craig Venter‘s Celera, and the publicly funded project headed by Francis Collins, to complete the sequence first, and also about a young journalist, Kellie Silverstein, who is covering the race, who struggles with her own genetic destiny, knowing that her mother died from breast cancer due to the BRCA1 mutation, which she likely also carries.  The Sequence was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Ironically, Mullin cannot afford to be a professional playwrite, and instead works in a clerical position at Amgen to pay the bills.  Like Copenhagen, the play has only three characters.

The story of the Human Genome Project is difficult to tell if you can’t assume that your audience already knows what a genome is, and what it does, and thus why there are enormous cultural, as well as healthcare, implications for the project.  If there’s a weakness in the play, I think it’s self consciousness about how hard the story was to tell.  You don’t need to tell the audience that it’s hard to tell – doing so almost seems like an apology or an excuse for doing a poor job of it, though to be fair, one of the themes in the play is the journalist’s difficulty in getting the story out.

Given that the underlying assumption about the audience seemed to be that they weren’t going to know what reverse transcriptase or ribosomes were, it seemed like there was a little bit too much focus on throwing around the big words, but it did touch on the difficult questions of to what degree intellectual property rights ought to be available for genomic information, and the possibility of discrimination based on genetic information, both societally and within the health care infrastructure.  But mostly, it’s a story of personal conflict and drama, between Collins and Venter, diametrically opposed real-life characters, and how that kind of personal drama, when it takes place in the context of science, may actually have large societal implications, which is something I think we’ve largely forgotten in the more than half a century since the first atomic bombs were detonated.  It is even more true in the context of something like genomics, where the information is the real power, and does not necessarily require a multi-billion dollar industrial plant behind it to have real effects.

We need more of this kind of theater, non-documentary, non-educational media about the relationship between science and society.  It can be made interesting, hopeful, despairing, and human, without needing anyone to understand the polymerase chain reaction.  More than anything, we need people to care about science, then we can worry about whether or not they understand.  If they don’t care, decisions will be made in purely greed and fear based modes, which is not what we need more of.  I wish that this kind of work were encouraged in the education and public outreach portion of scientific grants.  Cheers to the Sloan Foundation for making a stab at it.

The Sequence has been extended for two weeks, to run through November 23rd, 2008 if you’re interested in going.

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