In Relativity, playwright Cassandra Medley asks: With so many African Americans seeming to excel in sports, music and spiritual ministry, can we really call it a coincidence? Could super-fast running backs and brilliant jazz artists actually be genetically superior?
The question is shocking and infuriating -- even mirroring a certain strain of white-racist thinking -- and it may provide for some of the best drama Kuntu Theatre has ever staged. The play's themes of family loyalty, interracial relationships and the scientific method are complex and intuitive, and the characters are refreshingly new. After much philosophical rumination, Medley's gutsy script arrives at a powerful conclusion: People are far more similar than they are different.
Relativity depicts two warring ideologues. Dr. Claire Reid, a pop scientist, claims that high levels of melanin can make people better athletes, more deeply emotional and highly attuned to rhythm. On the other side is Dr. Iris Preston, a cold, aggressive Ivy League geneticist. Preston is openly hostile to Reid, while noting that melanin theory just isn't real science: It's sociology wrapped in genetic jargon, a desperate attempt to feel special in the wake of 400 miserable years. While Reid may not disparage other races, Preston foresees the disaster that a word like "superiority" could breed.
Caught between them is Reid's own daughter, Dr. Kalima Davis. Reid assumes that Kalima will embrace the melanin theory and fight for black empowerment. But secretly Kalima doesn't buy the theory at all. Worse, she's dating "outside the tribe": a goofy (white) scientist. Worst of all, she might co-author a paper with her mother's arch-nemesis. Family or self-fulfillment -- the choice is as cryptic as her DNA.
Overall, Kuntu's Pittsburgh-premiere production seems under-rehearsed: Even though the second act is worth waiting for, the pacing is often deadened by half-remembered lines. Too, Relativity might have benefited from a smaller stage: In Pitt's Alumni Hall, the action takes place so far from the front row that the actors are miked.
Yet the personalities of the two leads manage to fill the cavernous hall. As Kalima, Vanessa German is anxious and endearingly nerdy, even her final resolution tempered by self-torment. As Preston, Stephanie Batiste is calculating and Machiavellian -- she sticks the air with her scorpion finger, stinging everyone around her. Even as the voice of reason, Preston is hard to listen to -- a paradox that makes Batiste's performance so exceptional.
The best theme of Relativity is never really debated, and better so: Even among minorities, ever seeking equality, things may not be equal; meanwhile, scientists, seeking the "truth," can be as disagreeable and indulgent as the medieval church. In a controversial play, this unspoken friction is Relativity's most controversial idea -- and probably its most important.
Relativity continues through April 7. Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298