Written on May 20th, 2020
In Vitro: A Rock Opera is a rock opera exploring the development of human gene editing technology and how it will interact with race and racism. More specifically, the piece allegorically explores the experiences of non-Black people of color like myself who have historically benefited from assimilating to whiteness. But we’ll get to all of that...
I still remember the moment I devised the plot for In Vitro. Standing on the uptown-bound 123 line platform at Times Square on my way home from a play rehearsal, I stumbled upon an article detailing the imminent development of human genome editing technology. The post suggested that parents will have the ability to alter the genetic makeup of their children within our lifetimes. I was somewhat taken aback by the (albeit, increasingly common) headline out of a Black Mirror episode. I coped with this the way I do most troubling news- by brainstorming an artistic portrayal of the matter.
“Epitome of parents living through their children. They have the opportunity to choose their children’s features,” I jotted down in my iPhone’s Notes app. I couldn’t help but draw more similarities to Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi anthology when something struck me. For all the important questions Black Mirror raises about the role of technology in contemporary society, its characters ultimately seem to function in a "post-racial" society. Although there is racial diversity among the series’ casts, not one episode explicitly centers the divergent experiences of those characters portrayed. “The multi-ethnic casts of Black Mirror's future are positive elements of the show, suggesting that racism won't exist in the future,” writes Chakrabati in Digital Spy. This is further supported by the documented use of “race-blind” casting in at least one of the series' episodes.
However, current events have proven time and time again that people of color, and Black people in particular, are most targeted by technological advancements often on behalf of the state. Some examples include the wide scale development of racist facial recognition software, surveillance programs targeting Muslim-American communities post 9/11, and discriminatory targeted advertisement utilized by tech companies like Facebook. In keeping with my belief that art ought to be intentionally revolutionary, I decided not to make the same race-neutral choices as Black Mirror in exploring the implications of gene editing technology. Instead, I wondered how the development of this new technology would directly interact with race and consequently systemic racism.
The answer is as clear to me now as it was on that subway platform. Gene editing technology will reinforce white supremacy not only among white people, but among people of color as well. The popular and often dangerous global market of skin-lightening creams is just one example of colorist beauty standards that have spread far and wide, primarily as a result of western imperialist projects. In fact, the global trade of skin lightening products is estimated to reach $31.2 billion by 2024 (Thomas, Quartz Africa). As a consequence of this, there are a number of sometimes literally life or death benefits to white privilege and the ability to “pass” as white. This is especially true in the American context given the country’s ongoing legacy of slavery and systemic racism. The ability to edit an unborn child’s genes could be an opportunity to guarantee one’s offspring the weighty advantages of whiteness, no hazardous skin-cream necessary.
As I suspected, this journal is not quite as widely marketable as Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: the Revolution and I doubt that The View will bring me on to discuss systemic racial bias and the colonial origins of globalized white supremacy any time soon. However, this is a great example of why artistic expression is such an important tool for social change and one of the reasons I am so drawn to artistic storytelling. Much of this terminology describing the oppressive circumstances so many live through has been gate kept by classist institutions. Instead, these same concepts can be more universally and emotionally communicated through narrative. After all, we are story tellers and story consumers. The power of storytelling is especially strong in theater given the audience's physical proximity to performers and the natural inclination to empathize with them as a result. I often recall my mom echoing her uncle’s account that when invading Nazareth's central market, the hub of the city, zionist forces destroyed the theater first because they recognized its exceptional power. But I digress. The 1 train arrived and the opening scene of this piece flashed before my eyes as the platform soared by.
Why a Rock Opera?
As my compositional experience and influences adapted, so would the preferred format for this project. Since writing and producing my first of several rock operas in 2016, I have fallen in love with the genre. Although the definition of a rock opera is somewhat vague, it is generally regarded as a cohesive story communicated only through the vessel of rock music. Whether it be albums well cemented in the cultural zeitgeist like The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall or more obscure examples like Repo: the Genetic Opera, the form is consistently impactful in its implicit contradictions. It is artistically elaborate yet exceptionally accessible, narratively intriguing yet aesthetically ambivalent, and an uncommon combination of “high” and “low” art- these are, of course, racially coded and therefore problematic terms- and therefore the perfect medium to explore widely inaccessible aspects of critical race theory. Pete Townshend similarly took inspiration from Meher Baba’s teachings and “the play between self and illusory self” in the composition of Tommy.
Not to mention, what better musical genre than rock to tell a story of racial ambiguity and the politics of privilege? After all, the mainstream perception of rock itself has been forcefully detached from its Black roots and paired with more widely palatable white faces like those of Elvis and The Beatles. Additionally, my rock opera research rabbit hole revealed a lack of racially conscious rock operas. It only became more and more clear to me that In Vitro would take the form of a rock opera.
Perhaps most importantly, this rock opera is a chance to allegorically explore the experience of Arabs in America as we relate to whiteness. We have undoubtedly had a close proximity to whiteness as evidenced by our status as white on the United States Census, for example. However, it has become particularly clear in a post-9/11 society that Arabs and Muslims are far from inheriting the full privileges of whiteness because that is antithetical to how white supremacy operates. Instead, it pins marginalized communities against each other and harmfully deems some “model minorities” in order to maintain its power. In In Vitro, Ray is a personification of these issues. He is an Arab man who has white washed his own name and convinces his wife to white wash their children. However, he is no antagonist. He takes these actions as a result of deeply seated fears and past traumas of his and then ultimately suffers more than ever as a result.
Chasing whiteness is a losing battle that will only delay and deflect our community's suffering onto others. Instead, we must topple white supremacy full stop.
I believe that this piece is important because unlike Black Mirror, it explores questions about how technology and specifically the viability of genetically instilling whiteness could intersect with societal discrimination. Unlike Hamilton, I am not "satisfied" with just seeing more people of color on stage (portraying the slave owning founders of a racist colonial state, at that). I want our persisting liberation struggles and resistance portrayed on stage. I want to create something that will never be allowed on Broadway because we know who runs and funds the traditional pathways to theatrical "success." So, instead, I look forward to seeing you at productions of In Vitro: A Rock Opera at your local community centers, bars, and schools.
Until then, please enjoy the remotely recorded cast album for In Vitro.