Swab stories

A DNA test inspired Jamil Khoury, AMí92, and six other playwrights to ponder their identities.

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04
Photography by Dan Dry

Jamil Khoury

Khoury (center) views a DNA Trail set model with actor Khurram Mozaffar, AB’95 (left), and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, AB’01.

“What does a person named Jamil look like?” asks playwright Jamil Khoury, AM’92, cofounder of the Silk Road Theatre Project. “Swarthy? Mustached? African American?” A sandy-haired Chicago native, Khoury has spent a lifetime explaining his white skin. (His father is Syrian, his mother American.) In his newest production for Silk Road, which showcases writers of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean descent, Khoury and six other writers offer The DNA Trail, a collection of short plays that dive into the shifting seas of identity.

Running March 2 through April 4 at the Chicago Temple Building, the collaboration began two years ago, when Khoury invited the other playwrights to join him in taking a genealogical DNA test, then write a one-act piece inspired by the results. The group includes Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly; Guggenheim recipient Philip Kan Gotanda; and Velina Hasu Houston, resident playwright at the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre.

Based on the idea that humans originated in East Africa and then spread out searching for arable land, genealogical analysis traces a person’s lineage back to a common ancestor by identifying an ancient mutation in one’s DNA. Known as a haplotype, this genetic clue corresponds to a branch of civilization, or haplogroup, that clustered in a particular geographic region. The findings, say proponents, tell whether one’s forebears were Scandinavian, Han, or something else.

“All the writers said yes within the time it took me to explain the project,” says Khoury, who conceived The DNA Trail after reading about the 2006 PBS miniseries African American Lives. Written, produced, and hosted by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the documentary used genetic testing to trace the genealogy of several prominent African Americans. “I’m not a science person,” admits Khoury, “but I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to take one of these tests and see what we learn?’” After Silk Road purchased kits from Family Tree DNA, a partner of Gates’s company AfricanDNA.com, the writers swabbed their cheeks and sent the samples off for analysis.

“We went into these tests all wanting great surprises,” says Khoury. Yet when the results came in six weeks later, they were disappointingly predictable. Gotanda, the son of Japanese parents, learned his ancestors were from Japan. Hwang, who has Chinese ancestry, discovered his forebears were Chinese. Khoury’s analysis, however, included a haplogroup common in Scotland. It turned out to be a false alarm. A DNA counselor later clarified that the haplogroup in question belonged either to Scotland or the northern Fertile Crescent, precisely where his Syrian father grew up. The Scotland and Syria grouping “didn’t seem obvious to me,” Khoury says with a laugh. “I had this 24-hour period where I was trying to wrap my head around this new Scottish identity.”

Despite the less-than-shocking results, the genetic exploration sparked the writers’ creativity. For the next year, in between commissions and teaching gigs, they each penned a ten- to 14-minute script responding to the experience. “I did not want seven plays about DNA tests,” says Khoury, whose autobiographical piece WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole explores his mixed cultural heritage without ever mentioning haplogroups. Some pieces are more explicit. Hwang’s comic play, A Very DNA Reunion, as described in his artist’s statement, pillories the test as “the pseudoscientific stepchild of the past-lives craze from earlier decades.” A third tackles the challenges of surrogacy, while others evoke the specters of hereditary physical and mental illness that can lurk in the double helix.

The DNA Trail reprises much of the identity politics that led Khoury and his life partner, former Chicago Booth student Malik Gillani, to form Silk Road in 2002, hoping to provide a forum for different ethnicities to represent themselves. As the theater enters its eighth season, which also includes the Midwest premiere of Hwang’s semiautobiographical comedy Yellow Face, Silk Road is expanding nationally, collaborating with New York and San Francisco companies to award $10,000 annually to Middle-Eastern American playwrights.

“Everyone’s engaged in a conversation about identity,” says Khoury. Regardless of who you are, he says, when it comes to the forces of family, heritage, and now genetic legacy, understanding what it means to be you is no easy task.


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Video segments from the DNA Trail

Silk Road Theatre Project