"Babel" babble: thoughts on theater

In the world of "Babel," Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s recent production, childbirth is a matter of perfection. A child’s genes must be analyzed to fit government-imposed behavioral and psychological standards for access to high-paying jobs, comfortable homes, and fulfilling social circles in their lives. This genetic analysis of embryos in utero determines whether doctors designate a baby as “pre-certified,” meaning that the baby is granted access to the upper echelons of society before it is even born. But the pressure to have a pre-certified baby can become cutthroat, causing relationships between couples to falter, or reveal their true strength.

In "Babel," water is a dwindling resource, so much so that it is endangering the survival of humanity. As a response, the government comes up with a solution to this crisis: Before new babies are born, scan their genes so that only the best, smartest, and most agreeable people will come into the world and use water. This is the basis for human “certification.” It essentially aims to create a flawless society with no violence or crime. People who do have flaws — the uncertified — are relegated to the lower classes, forced to work manual labor or service industry jobs and live in the ghettos. The government proposes this motion to the country with a vote, and the vote passes.

As expected, this has many significant effects on human society and behavior. The amount of crime and violence does decrease, as it is mentioned in the play that there are only two mass shootings per year. However, human creativity has all but disappeared. There are no great artists or inventors anymore, because people no longer have unique characteristics that make them flawed. Also, there is a general idea that artists and inventors are “not needed anymore,” because society has supposedly reached its peak performance. In reality, human society has become stagnant and oppressive.

Daring and edgy, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s "Babel," directed by senior Lucy Murphy, follows two married couples: Renee and Dani, played by junior Sophia Macy and junior Simone Kiyoko De La Torre, and Ann and Jamie, played by juniors Leyla Davis and Christian Engelhardt. Renee and Dani are having fertility issues. After trying to get pregnant for eight years, the baby that Renee is now carrying seems to have a behavioral gene that causes it to fail the pre-certification test. Renee and Dani must now decide whether to keep the baby and risk it being uncertified, or terminate the pregnancy. Meanwhile, Ann and Jamie are also pregnant — with the “perfect” baby, or so they hope.

In this play, the first thing the audience notices about the cast as they move onstage is that they are almost naked, clothed in just their underwear. Seated on three sides of the actors, viewers got up close and personal with the characters almost immediately, seeing them in the most vulnerable and exposed positions — a little shocking and unusual at first but clearly intentional. As the play develops, the audience is granted as much insight into the private lives and confidential moments of the characters through their conversations as is conveyed through the state of dress they are seen in.

"Babel" is a deeply intimate play about a deeply intimate subject: pregnancy, a topic of discussion typically kept between couples. Here, all the gory details are on display. The strain that pregnancy can put on relationships, often hidden from public view, is exposed as well.

The play turns out to be as revealing in its words as in its costumes. When characters are not shown in their underwear, the costume design curated by master’s student Izzy Kitch is bright, colorful, and pleasingly futuristic. Every piece seems specifically selected for the character and presents a shiny, sleek, and fun collection of wardrobe perfection. But this perfection does not only apply to clothes. Rather, it emulates the perfection that the society in "Babel" tries to achieve.

Oppression in the "Babel" world is markedly different from oppression in our world. The dividing factor is genetics instead of race or gender. This manifests mostly in job disparity. In "Babel," the jobs that the main characters have are vague and nonspecific, but are imbued with status. A person’s position on the corporate ladder is very important socially. This is interesting because it is such a contrast to the jobs that non-certified people are forced to work: In the real world, these jobs are disproportionately held by under-privileged people. Jobs like public transit drivers and postal workers could be considered the backbone of our functional society, and they are held mostly by people of color. In this aspect, "Babel" is not unlike our world at all. Instead, it is eerily similar, showing how power dynamics stay constant no matter what the power hierarchy is based on.

"Babel’s" title makes biblical reference to the Tower of Babel that humans construct in the Book of Genesis. In the story, all people of Earth were united in communication, speaking the same language, and wished to build a city so high as to be in the realm of God. They wanted “its top in the heavens” so they could access God’s fame and power. Incensed by this direct challenge to the order of the world, God dashes the Tower and disperses the earthlings who defiantly made it. As a further consequence for their rebellious actions, God confuses the language of humans, parabolically creating the many tongues people use today, so that our understanding of each other will be forever lost.

As the humans of Genesis 11 seek to set themselves on a plane with God, so do the people of "Babel" work to take over the role of God in their lives. Chasing perfection for the human race, the characters have taken to “playing God'' in their rules about who can reproduce and what genetic makeup their progeny can have. They now choose who can come into the world and in what social station. They’ve voted to take the decisions usually left to a higher power into their own hands and defy natural creation.

The form of punishment "Babel’s" population may face, resulting from their tampering in the domain of the almighty, is less certain than in Genesis, but there are some indications. By the play’s conclusions, relationships have been severed, friendships and connectivity destroyed. This could be coming as a result of their behavior, but could as likely be the fallout from building a world of ultra-homogeneity, of cut-throat competition for parenting the most perfect child.

In Renee’s case, despite the conspiring influences on her to abort her “uncertifiable” baby, she ultimately decides to “roll the dice” and let nature carry out as it will. “Remember Babel?” she tells her spouse at one point. “We can’t play God.” She never had much faith in the concept of humans meddling in nature’s business, and decides that it is better to see how her child grows up, and how its so-called genetic deformities manifest later in life. Those “negative” traits may turn out to be creative assets. Personality, she realizes, can never be predicted. The unknown is the whole adventure.