It’s been almost a century since the Scopes “Monkey” Trial so famously fictionalized in "Inherit the Wind," yet the battle over teaching evolution and/or creationism in schools still rages on. But while the central question may have remained the same, the cultural landscape has changed since the 1925 trial that challenged a state law against the teaching of evolution, or that 1955 play that revived its themes and conflicts.
A new era of debate requires new plays to illuminate it, and Next Act Theatre has just such a play on tap. "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution," a world premiere work by Stephen Massicote, depicts a contemporary classroom thrown into chaos after an inquisitive 16-year-old derails a teacher’s biology class.
Director Shawn Douglass says the play subsequently focuses on the relationship between the teacher, Ms. Kelly (Deborah Staples), and the student, Raymond (Kyle Curry), as they try to negotiate each other’s worldviews and come to an understanding. Each has an ally: Kelly is supported by interim principal Mr. Lester (David Cecsarini), who has ulterior, romantic motivations for helping, as well as professional ones; Raymond is championed by his mother, Lynn (Mary MacDonald Kerr), a single parent and evangelical Christian who sees “Darwinism” as a threat to her faith.
It’s this tight, intimate focus that Douglass believes is a strength of Massicote’s play. “A lot of the noise around this issue is around the political aspects of the fight,” he says. “Lawsuits and those types of things. What’s attractive about ("Ten Questions") is that you get to see that play out on a very personal level.”
While the play ultimately comes down on the side of science, Douglass says it never ceases to paint a clear picture of the spiritual and emotional needs that faith can fulfill, and Raymond and his mother are treated just as sympathetically as the other two characters. In a sense, he says, the play is about how to bridge that divide, and teach those who place their trust in science and evidence and those who trust in a higher power and belief system to coexist and value each other despite their differences.
“Sometimes as we hear these discussions on the news,” Douglass says, “we tend to think of both sides in terms of ‘the other.’ ‘Those funny Christians’ or ‘those atheist scientists.’ What the play does masterfully is form a connection between two people who may not agree with each other all the time, but are open to each other, are interested in each other and care about each other.”
One of the challenges in working on a play as complex and sensitive as "Ten Questions" comes from having no other production to rely on. Douglass has never directed a Massicote play (although Next Act has previously produced two: "Mary’s Wedding" and "The Clockmaker"), and since "Ten Questions" is a world premiere, he and his actors must build their world from scratch. “That’s been a new experience for me, to build that reality from the ground up,” he says.
To help them do that, Douglass asked actors in rehearsal to focus on talking with each other about the play’s issues, trying to understand where their characters’ attitudes come from.
The conflict between religious and secular worldviews is once more in the public eye of late, due to the firestorm set off by Indiana’s “religious freedom” legislation. Given that, Douglass thinks it’s more important than ever that society understand where many of their fellow Americans are coming from, to enable dialogue and understanding. “There’s a sense, I think, for many Christians, especially those on the right end of the spectrum, that they feel under threat, and they feel like they are being forced to live in a world with different values than they hold,” he says.
He believes Ten Questions might offer a framework for coexistence — as long as both sides can accept each other for who they are, and care for each other as fellow human beings.
Next Act Theatre’s world premiere of "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution" will run through May 3 at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $28 to $38, and can be purchased at nextact.org or 414-278-0765.