One recent morning, the Florida Studio Theatre campus was a beehive of activity. Young children were lined up outside to enter to see The Boy Who Liked Pulling Hair and other short plays by young playwrights, Booker High students were preparing to see the Stage III production The Things They Carried, actors in one of the theater’s rehearsal rooms were hard at work, and playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger was being interviewed about her new play, Babel, which FST is presenting in a staged reading tomorrow, Friday, April 13, at 3 p.m. at the Keating Theatre. (You may still be able to get a ticket; call 366-9000 to find out.)
Goldfinger won the Smith Prize for Political Theater with this play, which centers on two couples “in the near future” facing pregnancies in a world where medical tests during gestation can tell parents what traits the child will have and what behaviors it’s likely to exhibit. Based on the results, they are either issued a PRE certification (which legally guarantees the baby will be a “good” person) or not (which means the child will be limited in what it is allowed to do throughout its life).
The spark for writing Babel (whose characters also include a stork, just so you know it’s not a dark piece) may have come from Goldfinger’s own experience as the mother of 5-year-old twins, one a boy and one a girl. “My son was smaller in utero, and less active than my daughter,” she recalls. “So we had a lot of tests” to be certain everything was OK. (It was.)
It all got her thinking about what we do with the knowledge we can now have before birth, thanks to modern science. “You can learn so much now, and if you have enough money when you’re doing IVF [in-vitro fertilization], you can choose certain physical traits for your child,” she says. In the play, knowing the test results would mean “you could keep certain bad acts away, but we don’t know what we’re losing.”
The playwright saw a connection to the story of the tower of Babel from the Old Testament. “There’s a similar story in almost every culture,” she says. “Every time we try to get close to God [as with building a tower to reach the heavens], we screw it up, but we still do it.”
Goldfinger was in Sarasota in January working on a first draft, and the input she receives this week from audiences and theater collaborators will impact any revisions she makes to Babel, to see “what jokes work, what works on the stage or doesn’t” as compared to what’s on the page. Those at the staged reading play a role in that process, and FST audiences have the chance they may see the finished product here sometimes as well, since FST is a core member of the National New Play Network (NNPN), which rolls out world premiere plays at several member theaters across the country. Babel could end up onstage in the 2020 season, here or elsewhere; stay tuned.