Friday evening saw the English Theatre Berlin’s staged reading of Informed Consent by Deborah Zoe Laufer. The play centres around genetic anthropologist Jillian (Jill Holwerda), who has inherited the gene variant for early onset Alzheimer’s disease from her mother.
Jillian is desperate to find a cure before she succumbs to the disease. She witnessed the demise of her own mother, and although she is fearful of losing herself, she is most concerned about protecting her daughter from the same thing. In her belief that science has the answers, Jillian appears overzealous and unstable. At work, she claims that science will one day make humans immortal, while at her daughter’s princess parties, she convinces fellow parents to submit their DNA to research.
So it is no surprise that when Jillian takes over a project from a social anthropologist, which gives her access to the DNA of a Grand Canyon tribe of Native Americans in order test their susceptibility to diabetes, she oversteps her boundaries. Jillian tests for all sorts of other things too and although she finds no genetic connection to diabetes, she does discover that the tribe originally migrated from Siberia. This contradicts the tribe’s own origin myth of springing from the Grand Canyon and creates a social and political quandary that the white scientist cannot possibly fathom.
For Jillian, there is only one story; the story of science – the greatest story of all. In her attempt to hold on to her identity, Jillian must confront the question of what makes us, us. Is it our DNA or is it the stories we tell ourselves?
In the end, this story is about a battle of stories. But the play suffers from a battle of stories itself. The question of informed consent – the play’s title and a fascinating concept that sprung from the Nuremberg code, after the Nazis conducted scientific experiments on unwilling subjects, becomes muddled with the story of Jillian’s home life, and the politics of Native American tribes in the US. Ultimately, the issue at the centre of the play – and the play itself – becomes confused.
In addition, although Jillian – the white scientist – is presented as a complex character, the representation of the members of the tribe are simplistic and inauthentic to the point of frustration. It is an example of what the play itself is trying to demonstrate – the dangers of one story, or voice trying to dominate all others. In this case, it is the story of a white, liberal playwright.