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Silicon Alleys: EnActe Arts Seeks Feminine Inspiration

Ariel (Stacy Fairley, left) and Sanam (Nandini Ravindran) disagree on who's killing the bees in 'Queen.'

The voices of strong women artists and scientists filled the De Anza Visual and Performing Arts Center last weekend, with the word "Queen" taking on multiple meanings.

EnActe Arts, a local theater production company that produces plays touching on the South Asian diaspora but with universal appeal, presented Madhuri Shekar's masterfully scripted play, Queen, in which the ethical dilemmas of corporate-funded scientific research go head to head with environmental activism.

In the play, two female scientists at UC Santa Cruz, Sanam and Ariel, explore the degree to which corporate pesticides are destroying the bee population. Colony Collapse Disorder is a real-life systemic problem, bees are dying everywhere and governments don't know what to do. Sanam and Ariel are days away from publishing an explosive paper about the results of their research, but the experiment model they wrote and the data they spent years collecting does not seem to prove as much as they intended. A dramatic last-minute crisis ensues, pitting the two scientists against each other.

Sanam is a talented scientist, steadfast in her integrity and sticking to ethical principles. Ariel, on the other hand, lets her emotions and subjectivity take over. At first she doesn't realize her own bias and lets her anti-corporate activism cloud her research. She knows Monsanto is to blame, yet the data doesn't quite go far enough to prove this. The two women are thus forced to grapple with serious issues. What does one do when awakened to the nature of her own biases? How does one handle it when a close friend and collaborator disagrees with the fundamental nature of her work? Do you stay true to your ethical scientific principles, or do you continue to fight for what's right, knowing that the planet is deteriorating and something needs to be done now and not later? The play unfolds around a dichotomy of objectivity/subjectivity, cheating vs. ethics, bias vs. legitimacy, and the problems of corporate-funded research.

"I could not think of a story that has more universal appeal," said EnActe Arts executive director Vinita Belani, who used to be a scientist herself. "This is also the year that our entire season is focused on presenting positive female role models to the community—scientists, detectives, playwrights, homemakers—who are doing incredible things. And this play is about very inspiring women dealing with very beautiful problems."

In addition to female empowerment, multiple threads of art-science collaboration weave their way through the entire experience. Nandini Ravindran, who plays Sanam, is a molecular biologist who by trade works on cell mutation. She harbors a visceral connection to the issues. "Queen" is her debut performance as a lead stage actress. Stacy Fairley, who plays Ariel, also has a degree in biology and was a practicing ER nurse for many years. She is likewise up close and personal with how science helps solve the world's problems. Both actresses nailed their roles.

The two male characters woven into the play provide additional intrigue. Arvind is the spoon-fed Wall Street stockbroker who parrots all the free-market capitalist talking points and whose grandfather is trying to arrange a marriage between him and Sanam. Dr. Philip Hayes, the advisor of Sanam and Ariel, is a heroic scientist in search of the truth, but also a struggling single dad who wonders whether or not he wasted his life.

Scientists will identify with the issues firsthand, while non-scientists will become enlightened by scenarios normally kept behind the scenes. And since Queen is such a portable production, it can easily transfer to a small black box theater or any number of pedagogical scenarios. Which is why the play is already slotted for another run next June at a venue to be determined. In addition, both San Jose State and UC Santa Cruz are on board to produce their own versions.

"Universities are grateful that playwrights are talking about these challenges that nobody in the outside world sees," Belani said. "So it's going to be an easy sell. Even though we did a traditional proscenium run, the play was not designed specifically for this purpose. The play was designed to travel in a suitcase and be done in any space for people interested in the confluence of science, technology, ethics and women's issues to start discussions."