“Reconciling Science and Culture” Ryan Victor Pierce, Deb Laufer and the Cast Talk to the Audience about INFORMED CONSENT

Following last Thursday evening’s performance of INFORMED CONSENT at The Duke on 42nd Street, Ryan Victor Pierce, founder of The Eagle Project, joined playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and members of the cast to discuss with the audience some of the issues the play raises. About two-thirds of the full house stayed for the talkback. Primary Stages Artistic Director Andrew Leynse moderated the discussion and began by asking Ryan to describe the activities of The Eagle Project and what he thought of the play.

Ryan Victor Pierce: I’m a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation from southern New Jersey and Delaware and we’ve been there for thousands of years. Our tribe has stayed on our ancestral land and is known as “keepers of the land.” I’m also an actor and singer and in 2012 I founded The Eagle Project, which is a Native American-based theater company in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. It uses the Native American experience as a centerpiece through which we explore what our national identity and our national consciousness means.

I was very moved by the play. These stories the tribe tells – whatever we may think of myths – are actually a big part of who we are and how we think of ourselves, just as much as our genetic makeup. Culture matters. I know that as a tribe we are constantly fighting for our identity and trying to preserve what culture we have left. Trust is also an important issue. Our tribe, for legitimate reasons, has been very skeptical of outsiders. It’s only been in my lifetime that we have started to open up to outsiders, very carefully, for many of the reasons that are presented so well in the play.

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Playwright Laufer shared some of her journey in creating the play:

Deb Laufer: It all began because I wanted to do research on the genome. Someone sent me the New York Times article on the Havasupai’s conflict with Arizona State University. I started there. And then Sloan sent me to spend a night with the tribe on the floor of the Grand Canyon. And that shifted my focus a good deal on the play, seeing how the tribe lived and how dire their circumstances were. I also went to a lab in Pennsylvania and got to extract DNA strands from cancer cells. This play took me all over the world. I had nine workshops. I had a reading of it in Estonia. And I thought that in Estonia people would have no relation to it. But they had been occupied by Russia for so many years. They’ve only had their freedom from Russia for twenty years. People were just sobbing because they related to the play in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated.

DeLanna Studi, who plays Arella, the spokesperson for the unnamed tribe in the play, is a member of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She described the significance of the role for her:

DeLanna Studi: I was very excited as an actress just to be able to play a contemporary Native woman. I don’t know if you watch much television or films but we’re usually in the background wearing leather and feathers and more often than not we’re being raped or murdered. You’ll see this whole movie where there are a million men and just three women and it’s like “Where are your women?” So to be able to portray a contemporary Native woman on stage, especially a strong Native woman in an important issue is a step in the right direction. I’m very honored and blessed to be here.

One audience member raised one of the central questions in the play by sharing that she had gotten tested and knew she had a gene for an inheritable disease. She wondered how the panelists felt personally about whether they would want to get tested and know the likelihood of being at risk:

Deb Laufer: My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s so this is something that has loomed large in my family for a long time. My mother and I were always thinking that yes, we should get tested – or we won’t get tested. And my mother, after seeing the play, went and got tested. She hasn’t received the results yet. I was surprised because I was always, yes, I would definitely get tested . . . but I haven’t yet.

Pun Bandhu (who plays Graham, the husband of Jillian, the genetic anthropologist): For an actor, asking that question is like: do you want to read reviews or do you not? [laughter] Personally, I think it depends on what kind of disease. If it’s something like heart disease that is treatable, something where I could take preventive measures to extend life, I would want to know; but if there’s nothing you can do about it, then I’m with Graham and would prefer to just live life.

Andrew Leynse: Ryan and DeLanna, could you speak to how much history and culture is at the core of your tribe’s beliefs?

Ryan Victor Pierce: Well, you hear it in Arella’s monologue where she says they are taking away our identity. The tribe is saying, “Our story is all we have left and you want to take that away in order to make a name for yourself over there.” A telling moment in the play is when Jillian says to her husband, “It’s not about race to me at all.” And he responds, “Well, you have that luxury.” These people don’t have the luxury of that choice.

DeLanna Studi: For my people we have a situation very similar to the one in the play. We originated in North Carolina, that’s where our mother town is. For years scientists have been saying that our ancestors passed along the Bering Strait. And we say, “No, we have a creation story that says we are here.” We are the principal people. So we sat back and waited and recently they discovered bones in our area that pre-date the Bering Strait. So we said: there you go.

One of my favorite stories is the story of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand. For a very long time, historians did not accept oral history as history. And of course, no one survived other than the native people, the Lakota, the Northern Cheyenne and the Arapaho. Finally, historians decided that they were missing out on a key piece of this history: “We need to go to these nations and ask them what they know.” Most nations are very strict in the way they share stories. You hear a story and in order to retell a story you have to retell it in exactly the same way you heard it. You have to earn the right to retell a story. Different nations have different ways of teaching stories and of who has the right to tell a story. Sometimes it’s passed down by family. Sometimes it’s passed down by the person who is supposed to tell it. Historians went out and asked the nations, “What do you know about the story of Little Big Horn?” Suddenly they have a fuller picture. Within the past fifty years they’ve been accepting our oral histories as part of history so we now have a new version, which is wonderful. For native people it’s all about being patient.

In closing Ryan noted that The Eagle Project will be having two readings of its works in progress in September at Primary Stages: September 4 at 4 PM and September 11 at 4 PM. You can find out more information on the Eagle Project website.

There are four more scheduled talkbacks happening after every Thursday evening performance. 

The Off-Broadway Premiere at The Duke on 42nd Street of INFORMED CONSENT by Deborah Zoe Laufer is being co-produced by Primary Stages and The Ensemble Studio Theatre through EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.