Humans do a lot of weird stuff. Tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, taking foreskins off baby boys: We accept our own culture’s weirdness without even thinking it’s weird. Seth Rozin’s talky new play HUMAN RITES invites us to reconsider the way we think about another culture’s “weird”, objectionable practice.
Cultural psychologist Alan Friedman (Joe Guzmán, dressed nicely professorially by costume designer Lizzy Pecora) has been called into the office of his departmental dean Michaela Richards (Kimberly S. Fairbanks). Richards rails against Friedman’s research into “female genital mutilation”, which claims that most women who undergo the procedure view it as a normal, welcome entry into womanhood (Rozin was inspired by real-world work by University of Chicago cultural psychologist Richard Shweder and anthropologist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu).
Friedman’s research offends Richards’s feminist sensibilities. As a black woman, she’s unhappy that this white male professor inserted himself into this conversation. Referencing their own past affair, she wonders if it is a result of his fetishization of black women. (Um, it might be, he admits.)
HUMAN RITES doesn’t demonstrate a sharp understanding of relationships within academic hierarchy. Richards’s interactions with Sierra Leonean grad student Lydia Namandu (Lynnette R. Freeman) display an unrealistically, almost unfathomably, lack of politic for an academic dean. Rozin gives the trio some relevant, plotted backstory (for example, Richards adopted a daughter from Mali, where female circumcision is the norm), but he’s not attempting to create realistic characters interacting with believable emotions. Guzmán and Fairbanks debate engagingly, but there’s no hint of romantic chemistry.
Instead, HUMAN RITES succeeds as a vehicle to tackle hot-topic themes: appropriation (Friedman collects African masks), intersectionality, racism, cultural sensitivities. Each character voices a compelling argument about a complex subject.
Still, Richards asks Friedman why he feels compelled to tell this story. Like Friedman, Rozin wants us to reconsider female circumcision (that is, decide it’s maybe not so bad). Like Friedman, Rozin is a white male presenting a story which might better be voiced by African women. In the play, Friedman never adequately answers Richards’s question. It hangs.
[InterAct Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street] March 23-April 15, 2018; interacttheatre.org