Presented by Underground Railway Theater
The Brit d’Arbeloff Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Production
Arranged by Melinda Lopez
Directed by Dawn M. Simmons
Original music by Nona Hendryx
Dramaturgy by Des Bennett
Featuring: Kortney Adams(she/her), Karina Beleno Carney (she/her), Lindsey McWhorter (she/her), James Ricardo Milord (he/him), Daniel Rios, Jr. (he/him), Alison Yueming Qu (she/they)
Please note: People of Color (POC) is a term used in Young Nerds of Color to describe people of Asian, Black, Native, Hispanic and Latino descent. It is not being used because white people are uncomfortable saying “Black.” They might also be that.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Critique by Kitty Drexel
A Note from Noelani Kamelamela is below.
Cambridge, Mass. — My wonderful partner is scientist of color (a note from them below). An adult nerd of color, if you will. They work at MIT. Seeing MIT through their eyes, knowing their experiences made watching Young Nerds of Color easier to believe and harder to endure. Young Nerds of Color is fun! It’s also chock full of difficult truths.
Arranger/writer Melinda Lopez interviewed over 60 scientists, students, science fiction writers, and diversity officers. She created this piece with the interview team: Thedita Pedersen, Des Bennett, Calista Irawan, Kaley Bachelder, and others. In it, fictional composite characters describe their passions for science, their origin stories, and their overwhelming, maddening, true experiences of racism.
Racism slows the characters’ progress with its gatekeeping, invisibility, infantilism, ignorance, stereotyping, false controversies, classism, colorism, rage, fear, negative representation, and impossible standards. We hear their successes and failures.
The cast shares the show with the audience with glorious cheer and necessary severity. There’s great joy in this show despite it’s serious, often discouraging stories.
Monologues and dialogue are conversational. The actors quote and paraphrase the interviewees in real time. This style can make an actors look as if they have forgotten lines. But, once the audience realizes why the actors pause, the cast shows us that they are adopting the thoughtful tone and demeanor of a person interviewed.
The music by Nona Hendryx rocks! Its songs were sung beautifully by the cast. Its only drawback is that we lose the casts’ lines when they speak concurrent dialogue. We could understand the cast from row E but it wasn’t always easy: the sound cues were miced; the cast was not.
Young Nerds of Color would make an excellent touring show for high school-aged persons. It’s an appropriate length; its setting and costumes are relatively simple; its subject could turn the minds of maturing minds. Or, it could convert young artists who think they can’t practice an art and study STEM.
The light-up Period Table created by Shelley Barish is clever. Actors step up to each block and appear to light each with their hand (although my instinct says a person in the booth controls the cue) like Vanna White with a Lite Brite. The pain on the floor and platforms looks like a map of the night sky.
Neither DNA nor RNA are discussed at lengths worthy of adding either to the set. The synthesis of acid chains into proteins is briefly mentioned but not to any extent that warrants putting DNA or RNA into the set design.
I can understand the motivation behind forcing DNA chains into one’s scenic design. It’s a symbol that immediately screams, “Science!” to a viewer (and makes a handy musical instrument). But, Young Nerds of Color is largely about people, biosciences, physics, and maths. Not genetics. The DNA chains look out of place.
Many Nerds, Geeks and Dweebs were invited to this show. The average theatre-goer won’t realize the discrepancy. The young pedants growing into adult pedants with a science career will.
It is strange that Dr. Sylvester James “Jim” Gates, Jr. doesn’t have a bio in the physical or digital program. He is a main character. His monologues (deftly delivered by James Ricardo Milord) communicate the show’s core principles. As a principal, Gates deserves a bio with the cast and crew. The other characters in the show are fictional composites created from the words and experiences of real people.
The content of Young Nerds of Color isn’t new. Leaders in every profession have been patting themselves on the back for tokenizing minorities for decades. It isn’t enough to be “objective” anymore; leaders must actively choose to elevate, mentor and hire people of color at equal rates of white people. That is how true diversity, justice and equity will be won.
A Note from Adult Nerd of Color, Noelani Kamelamela:
I would have appreciated seeing a show like this as a teenager. Most of the professionals who were Native like me which I had the opportunity to meet were not scientists. They were hairdressers, bank tellers, lawyers, even. My parents tried their best to introduce us to a variety of people in different jobs, so we could imagine what our future careers could be, and ultimately although I was more interested in science and math. I still had few people of color in those fields that I had ever spoken to in person even after I started attending university.
A show like Young Nerds of Color, distills the experiences of various STEM professionals of color at different points in their careers. While I was not surprised by the general messages regarding diversity, inclusion and also exclusion for some of the characters, I was pleasantly reminded that there has been a lot of progress.
The most moving scenes involved group interactions, where each interviewee could listen and respond to the others points and the audience. There was a sense of community on stage and I’m not sure whether it fully exists for every nerd of color who works in STEM today.