Popular during the turn of the last century, the eugenics movement posited that certain people were more fit to reproduce than others, and that by encouraging “fit” parents to have children while discouraging (or sometimes outright preventing) “unfit” parents from doing so would improve a country’s genetic stock. Jacqueline Goldfinger’s new play, Babel, now getting its premiere at Theatre Exile, imagines a future that resurrects these values.
Eugenicists believed that by selecting for traits like health, appearance, intelligence, and behavior they could eradicate crime and end undesirable personality traits (including things like “promiscuity,” which of course risked the downfall of Western society). Nazis loved eugenics.
But so did much of the American intelligentsia. In fact, America continued to carry out forced sterilizations as recently as 2010. Given the very real dystopia of modern times, it’s not impossible to imagine a not-too-distant future like the one in Babel, where eugenics regains its popularity.
A vote comes home
Reeling from the irreversible consequences of ignoring climate change and the aftermath of blocked attempts at gun control, the world of Babel is one in which scientists have offered a solution to dwindling resources and increased crime: in-utero testing for undesirable genetic markers for health, intelligence, and behavior. Babies (embryos, really, at the time of testing) that do not “pass” in all three categories will be relegated to living an isolated, restricted life: where they reside, what they do, who they marry (if they’re allowed to marry at all). Or, as an alternative, parents can choose to abort their un-certifiable baby and see if their luck might change with a future pregnancy. And hey, fewer undesirable babies means fewer babies overall, and suddenly, this future-America has stockpiles of natural resources and a significant drop in violent crime.
This was the future Americans hoped for when they voted for the “new eugenics” laws. It was the future Dani (Amanda Schoonover) hoped for when she voted for them. But now, her wife, Renee (Anita Holland), is pregnant and testing indicates their baby will not be certified, even though Dani and Renee are.
Dynamic, stirring, humorous
Schoonover and Holland both put in dynamic, stirring performances as mothers-to-be who have to decide whether to keep the baby they have been trying to conceive for eight years, or terminate the pregnancy and pray that the next insemination takes. Their façade as a perfect couple first cracks, then shatters, under the weight of this decision and the collateral damage that will surely come, no matter what decision they make.
But the play isn’t all tragedy. Goldfinger weaves humor throughout her script—sometimes dark, sometimes almost slapsticky—breaking the tension of the play’s larger themes. Helping on this front are performers Bi Jean Ngo (Ann) and Frank Nardi, Jr. (Jamie), another expectant couple with their own anxieties and a fixation on perfection that threatens to undo them. Nardi does double duty, also playing a Catskills-influenced stork mascot who may or may not exist only in Renee’s head. Steered by director Deborah Block, Dani and Renee’s interactions with Ann, Jamie, and the stork help flesh out the play and give additional depth to the main characters.
Steeped in science
The thing about gene testing is that just because you have a certain gene, or a certain genetic mutation, it doesn’t mean that you will have problems. With only a few exceptions, a genetic abnormality indicates a possibility, not a certainty. This point is made in the play, and it was made to me by the geneticist friend who joined me at Babel. Goldfinger clearly did her research with this script, which is part of what makes it so effective. While her play Click failed in many ways to resonate with me because I was too hung up on the technology invented to further the plot, Babel lets the technology exist in, rather than inform, the world she has created. It might not be realistic yet, but it’s certainly not impossible.
What, When, Where
Babel. By Jacqueline Goldfinger. Through March 8, 2020, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., basement level, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or theatreexile.org.
The new Theatre Exile facility is fully ADA-compliant and has gender-neutral restrooms.