Playing God: Jacqueline Goldfinger talks about her newest play

Commissioned by National New Play Network, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s BABEL comes to Theatre Exile in a couple weeks as part of a rolling world premiere with five other theaters across the country. The winner of the Smith Prize for Political Theater, the latest play by one of Philadelphia’s best-regarded playwrights tackles the moral questions behind modern eugenics and asks how far we will go when playing God? Phindie talked to Jackie about the themes and inspirations behind her new work.

Goldfinger introduces a reading of BABEL at an Independence Foundation Fellowship event. The play was partially written while on an Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts. Photo by Kate Raines.

Phindie: What inspired BABEL?

Jacqueline Goldfinger: When I was pregnant with the twins, we had some odd test results and had to do additional testing. While, thankfully, the kids turned out to be fine, the additional testing opened our eyes to the wide, and sometimes shady, world of reproductive technologies. I thought, this would make a great play! And then I had twins. And I spent the next five years raising twins. So it wasn’t until they began kindergarten that I was able to sit down, research properly, and write the play.

Phindie: Why is it called BABEL?

Jacqueline Goldfinger: The title BABEL is taken from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel; where humans tried to climb close to God in order to rule the world. Spoiler Alert: The attempt failed. The tower and the people climbing came crashing down. And God split the community into factions that eventually began warring with each other. Much like the Tower of Babel, reproductive technology is reaching towards God by trying to control everything from hair and the color to attempting to sequence and define genes. What will happen as we reach? Will will rise? Will we fall? Who will we allow to play God to future generations?

Phindie: How challenging was it to explore moral questions around eugenics within a narrative play?

Jacqueline Goldfinger: There are so many moral and ethical questions around eugenics that I needed to narrow the scope of the conversation in order to create a compelling story that engaged with, but was not overwhelmed by, the intellectual issues at hand. So, I narrowed the conversation to one procedure that will be available in the future, which is in utero genetic testing. By narrowing the scope of the eugenics conversation, I could really have two pregnant couples wrestling with the specifics of genetic testing results for their babies—and also dive into the bigger questions, like, even if you know what each gene can do, you don’t know what it will do, which will predominate. What do we do with folks who have a predisposition to, say, extreme violence? Do we regulate how they live, just to be safe, to make sure they can’t hurt anyone? But what if they wouldn’t hurt anyone? Can we judge and regulate people’s behavior based on what might happen?

The play doesn’t necessarily answer all of these big questions, although we do follow a complete story with the couples. But the play does encourage the audience to think about these questions for themselves – because we are going to face them, sooner rather than later.

Babel Theatre Exile
Actors Frank Nardi, Jr. and Bi Jean Ngo in rehearsal for the production of BABEL at Theatre Exile.

Phindie: BABEL is being produced across the country and won the Smith Prize for Political Theater. How do you, personally, judge success as a playwright?

Jacqueline Goldfinger: My metric for judging success as a playwright is, do I reach the audience? Do I make them laugh, cry, think, hope, dream… in all the right places? With this play, folks seem to be enjoying the balance between comedy—like, ya’ know, a six foot talking stork who wants to be a stand-up comedian—and the harder, serious questions of the play.

Phindie: What would you like the audience to take from seeing the play?

Jacqueline Goldfinger: First, I hope they are entertained. While the play does tackle serious issues, it also embraces love, hope, dreams, and laughter. Second, I hope that they go home talking about the quandaries posed by reproductive technologies which could, very easily, stray down the unenlightened path of the tragedy of eugenic testing in the past.

Phindie: Thanks Jackie!

BABEL runs February 13 to March 8, 2020, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street. It’s produced at Theatre Exile as a part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, with dates at Unicorn Theatre (Missouri), Good Company Theatre (Utah), Contemporary American Theater Festival (West Virginia), Passage Theatre Company (New Jersey), Florida Studio Theatre, and one other venue TBA.

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