David Byrne’s intriguing play examines the nature of homo sapiens and our evolution from such a variety of platforms, it may take you awhile to untangle it. Narrative is set in contemporary terms by what appears to be a Tinder encounter between anthropologist/professor Ava (Stella Taylor) and Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), the dramatized grandson of real life mathematician and science historian Jacob Bronowski (here, Richard Delaney). Ava feels unmoored having just lost her job, Jamie because his last living family member has just died.
The two drink a great deal (directed with wit) and end up in bed at the recently inherited home of Jamie’s family for generations. Sobering up, Ava is about to take leave of what she sees as a single hook up, when she’s drawn back by learning that Bronowski maintained a private, still locked workroom replete with an alarm system. She flirts her way in and manages to open a sealed box while the hopeful Jamie makes coffee. New information could mean publishing, career revitalization!
One of the first things Ava disinters is a signed copy of the Official Secrets Act. Evidently Jamie is unaware of what his grandfather did during the war. As the truth dawns, we see Bronowski conscripted to the government; his excitement about conquering mathematical problems ostensibly to a higher purpose. George, Rita, and an enormous wall of equations appears. “It’s always dying for your country. Nobody talks about killing,” Jamie declares visibly upset. This is not the man he knew.
Richard Delaney and Andy McLeod
Then and now weave together with intermittent reference to mankind’s transformation and adaptation creating the third strand of a braid. How much of what we are today is primordial DNA? Plausibly, at least the vulnerability of our bodies, innate fear of dark and of the future. What about aggression, selfishness, survival? What does it mean to be human?
“We are the healers of the sick, terrors over nature…How far we’ve ascended…I’ve been to the two mass graves of the 20th Century and I’ve seen what we’re capable of was dogma. When we close our eyes and ears, we stop being human.” (Bronowski in the play)
Richard Delaney and Olivia Hirst
Whether Ava publishes against Jamie’s wishes is not the point, but it may be “a” point. What’s happened to our individual and collective moral compass? How will it end?
Secret Life of Humans is apparently inspired by Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 documentary television series “The Ascent of Man” and Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind published in 2014. Bronowski developed mathematical approaches to bombing strategy and visited Japan to document the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki studying the effects of the atomic bomb and its implications for purposes of civil defense.
Trying to cram too much scary smart anthropological and sociological theory into a piece of theater that also hypothesizes on the range and moral toll of Bronowski’s war work for the UK is complicated. Selectivity would’ve made the piece more accessible. Having written this, what does get through is timely and, dare I say, important.
As Director, author David Byrne employs so much compelling action and media that the piece emerges a fever dream. Ava speaks directly to us, lecturing to her class, then steps back into the story. We meet Bronowski, his wife Rita (Olivia Hirst), and associate George (Andy McLeod) in the past and as figures that pass through current plot. Projection of fictional archival material and actual television interviews appear moodily on a textured screen. Use of aerial technique poetically depicts humans at certain pivotal points in time. Integration is terrific.
Actors are uniformly good. Gravitas may at times feel academic, but it never overwhelms collective character fallibility.
Jen McGinley’s mobile book-centric Set Design keeps the piece both fluid and able to manifest simultaneous time- i.e. figures both dead and alive. Screen aspects are uniquely effective.
Imaginative work by Composer/Sound Designer Yaiza Varona and Projection Designer Zakk Hein are indispensable to making this production immensely evocative.
Aerial Designer John Maddox adds subtlety and flair.
Photos by David Monteith Hodge
Opening: Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor
New Diorama Theatre in Co-Production with Greenwich Theatre present
Secret Life of Humans by David Byrne
Directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley
Devised by The Company
Through July 1, 2018
59E59 Street Theaters