Directed by Liesl Tommy
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“A comprehensive movement toward informed consent began after World War II with the 1947 Nuremberg trials. In these war trials, it was revealed that physicians conducted abhorrent medical research experiments on concentration camp prisoners. The research included human experimentation with germ warfare, freezing individuals to learn what temperature kills individuals most effectively, and many more horrifying research trials.” (Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Advameg Inc.)
The real power in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “Informed Consent” is not what it first appears to be. The play is not about mythos versus logos – storytelling versus science. The play is not about early onset Alzheimer’s or one’s awareness that “something is different” and one’s short-term memory is slowly deteriorating. It is about decision-making and how that process might be affected by cultural norms and scientific information. It is also about motivation and transparency. However, it is difficult to sort all of that out in Ms. Laufer’s play.
And one would want to assume that all of this obfuscation of intent was somehow purposeful on the part of the playwright. The writing is good enough to assume Ms. Laufer might have been intentional in the execution of her script; however, the cop-out ending belies that and what is more likely is that the playwright set in motion too many “stories” and did not know quite how to resolve her own dramatic arc. Is “Informed Consent” about protagonist Jillian’s concern that her daughter will have the same chance of early onset Alzheimer’s as she did or is it about helping others whose Nation is slowly dying off?
The play becomes powerful when it is allowed to serve as a trope for the many crimes against Original Peoples by settlers from Europe who as Arella (played with a determined commitment by Delanna Studi) affirms took everything away from all Indigenous Peoples and left them with nothing except their stories of beginnings. “Informed Consent” follows closely the case of The Havasupai People and Arizona State University in 1989 when ASU genetic anthropologist Teri Markow solicited members of the Havasupai Nation to provide blood samples to test for a specific genetic link to Type II Diabetes. Dr. Markow tested for additional markers not agreed to by the Nation and they eventually sued ASU in 2004 and won an out of court settlement and were able to retrieve their blood samples. The retrieval of those samples is a powerful moment in “Informed Consent.”
In Ms. Laufer’s play, the genetic anthropologist is given the fictitious name of Jillian (played with a compelling urgency by Tina Benko) but the events are strikingly similar to the ASU/Havasupai People dispute. The story is complicated and raises a series of rich and enduring questions. Do horrific events in the past exclude the possibility for healing in the present? In her conversations with Nation Leader Arella, Jillian admits many grievous wrongs were committed against the Indigenous Peoples of North America. But does that preclude Arella’s Tribe from accepting knowledge that might help the Nation survive? Is Jillian’s lack of securing informed consent the same type of betrayal experienced by Indigenous Peoples since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas? If Tribe members undergo amputation and dialysis at an off-Reservation hospital, why is having a blood sample taken not allowed? Where does the Sacred-Non-Sacred boundary lie?
Nearly half of Native American people (42 percent) are under the age of 24; more than one-third of Native children live in poverty; and Native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools (Fact Sheet: The White House Tribal Nations Conference). Nevertheless, many Native Americans have found entrepreneurship to be a way out of poverty. And more are likely to take that path in the future. (Foundation for Economic Education). Why is entrepreneurship permitted but not the benefits of science? And why would science be able to damage the strong faith of a community of believers?
Under Liesl Tommy’s exquisite direction, the ensemble cast moves through time and space changes with ease and both narrate and perform this important story. In addition to Ms. Benko and Ms. Studi, Jesse J. Perez delivers a compelling performance as Ken the anthropologist who trusted Jillian to be his successor; Myra Lucretia Taylor portrays the Dean of the College with grace and honesty; Pun Bandhu gives Graham – Jillian’s husband – a suffering forbearance. Each actor – except Ms. Benko – portrays other characters including Graham and Jillian’s daughter Natalie portrayed convincingly by Delanna Studi.
“Informed Consent” raises significant questions about what informs decision-making and what motivates individuals in their actions and encounters with other people. There is no right or no wrong here, just enduring and rich questions some of which are morally ambiguous. The play provides no answers but gives the audience the opportunity to re-examine an important historical event under a new dramatic microscope.
For a detailed account of the ASU/ Havasupai People events, please visit http://genetics.ncai.org/case-study/havasupai-Tribe.cfm.