After struggling to find plays to produce that celebrated scientists of color, Debra Wise, artistic director at Cambridge’s Underground Railway Theater, organized a lunch five years ago with a small group of folks, including playwright Melinda Lopez, to talk more about it. That was the day, Lopez said, the idea for what’s now called “Young Nerds of Color” was hatched.
“Young Nerds of Color” — that’s the working title — is a play in development at Central Square Theater as part of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT program, launched in 2005 as a creative partnership between the university and the theater. The workshop production will stream April 8-11 during the Brit d’Arbeloff Women & Science Theater Festival, a nearly monthlong virtual exhibition of panels, plays, and other events aiming to augment underrepresented voices in science.
Lopez, a celebrated Boston playwright whose recent work includes “Mr. Parent” and “Mala,” has also written science-focused plays such as “From Orchids to Octopi: An Evolutionary Love Story,” a Catalyst Collaborative project commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, and “Girl Meets Boy: A Comedy About the Universe.”
To develop the script for “Young Nerds of Color,” Lopez culled material from more than 60 interviews with newer and established scientists as well as students to weave a narrative that focuses on their lived experiences, both the difficult and the triumphant. Currently, the play features 10 of those stories.
Dawn M. Simmons, cofounder and artistic director of The Front Porch Arts Collective, is directing the upcoming performance. She places the scientists at a Zoom cocktail party where two older professionals, Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychology professor, and Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr., director of the Brown Theoretical Physics Center at Brown University, talk to a mix of younger people including chemical engineer Pauline Serrano, computational biologist Demarcus Briers, and epidemiologist Adrianne Gladden-Young.
Together, “they’re all reflecting on their journeys,” Simmons offered.
Presenting in Zoom comes with numerous constraints, but Simmons plans to focus on how the actors embodying real people will occupy space onscreen. The real-life challenges of Zoom gatherings — think people trying to talk while muted, eating onscreen, and more — will be reflected in the production.
Since its inception, the play has morphed from a story made up of composite characters, which Lopez felt was less successful, to the latest iteration. Along the way, C. Brandon Ogbunu, assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, has read drafts of the scripts, made comments, and attended some of the readings, Lopez said. Ogbunu, an avid writer himself, was at that fateful lunch years ago.
So far, whittling down the material that Lopez gathered has proved challenging.
Ultimately, “you want a mix of pathos and comedy,” Wise shared, and “flights of fancy and down-to-earth stories.”
Many moving narratives gleaned from the interviews, some of which explored depression and extremely tough upbringings, didn’t make the play. Instead, Lopez leaned toward the uplifting and inspiring. She and dramaturg Des Bennett looked for common themes and what resonated most. Some recurring themes included micro-aggressions and feeling hypervisible, and yet invisible as a person of color in science.
And “there were some stories that just inherently suggested a journey,” Lopez said. For example, Harvard University professor John Johnson’s interview that documented his college experience, where he is now, and how he ended up mentoring students of color “just arrived fully perfect,” she said.
After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police in 2020, the team checked in with the scientists to see what, if anything, had changed since they were last in touch.
Lopez found that those conversations “were much more pointedly interrogating the racist structures and systems that were in place; the gatekeeping, the lack of diversity on the boards of institutions … and at the executive level.”
Attempting to tackle complex social issues exemplifies the parallels between artists and scientists. “We’re both supposed to sit in the middle of a problem for a really long time before rushing to a solution,” Wise said.
Lopez said Gates, the Brown University physicist, talked about pursuing science the way a composer creates music.
“I think of the piece itself as a kind of composition,” Lopez said of her play. “It’s like a fugue of voices, a multiplicity of these voices. I have not written the text, but I have composed it and arranged it so that we have these scientists in conversation.”
Lopez’s isn’t the only play featured at the women and science festival, aptly named for Brit d’Arbeloff, an engineer who struggled to find work after graduating at the top of her class at Stanford. On April 15-18, Central Square Theater will stream seven 10-minute plays that the festival has commissioned featuring “strong female characters engaging with real science.” It will also stream a production of Kia Corthron’s “Splash Hatch on the E Going Down,” directed by Lyndsay Allyn Cox, on April 19-25.
One of the 10-minute plays premiering at the festival centers on a contentious job interview between a woman who is around 70 and a woman in her 20s who have opposing views about the study of endometriosis. Another shows two generations of lawyers discussing the culpability of a woman with a memory disorder who left a child in a hot car and caused the child’s death. There’s also a love story between nerds.
For her work though, Lopez hopes “that there is both optimism and bracing, real honesty.”
BRIT D’ARBELOFF WOMEN & SCIENCE THEATER FESTIVAL
Presented by Central Square Theater, April 7-27. Register for tickets at wsfest2021.centralsquaretheater.org