It all started on Facebook. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer was applying for the EST/Sloan Project, a commissioning project from Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City for plays about science and technology. Short on ideas and with the deadline four days away, she asked her social network for suggestions. A friend, who was a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, forwarded Laufer an article about the Havasupai Case.
The Havasupai are an Indian tribe living in the Grand Canyon. In 1990, they provided DNA samples to researchers at Arizona State University, in hopes of finding a genetic reason for the tribe’s propensity for diabetes. The geneticists delved not just into the disease, but also performed tests for inbreeding, schizophrenia and for the probable origins of the tribe. Those findings were published, and the Havasupai, humiliated, sued ASU.
“With all the breakthroughs in medical science, how much do we really want to learn about who we are, about our genetic past and future?” Laufer wonders. Those questions form the basis of her newest play, Informed Consent, commissioned by the EST/Sloan Project. It’s running through April 13 at Geva Theatre Centre in Rochester, N.Y., in a co-production with Cleveland Play House in Ohio, where it will play April 25–May 18. Laufer also expects it to show up at EST next year.
In the play, Laufer fabricates a backstory for the ASU geneticist, who is now named Jillian and at high risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s. She wants to test her daughter for the disease, but her husband objects. The rationale for this addendum was personal: “Marsha Norman was my teacher, and she used to say that when you’re stuck working on a play, write about the thing that terrifies you most,” Laufer explains. “That’s why I included Alzheimer’s. It terrified me most.”
The fear is not unfounded. Laufer’s grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, and for her part, Laufer is hesitant to unravel her own genetic make-up. “I think everyone should get tested but me!” she exclaims, with a chuckle. “I don’t know if I want to know. There’s no way to un-know it. There’s no way it won’t loom large.”