A bristling clash of cultures in InterAct Theatre’s ‘Human Rites’

Plays like “Human Rites” – thoughtfully written and thought-provoking -- are what keep a lot of people, myself included, eagerly going to the theater.

Kimberly S. Fairbanks and Joe Guzmàn in InterAct Theatre Company's

Kimberly S. Fairbanks and Joe Guzmàn in InterAct Theatre Company's "Human Rites." (Photo courtesy of Kate Raines/Plate 3 Photography)

My cherished cultural observance may be your anathema, and yours may be an abomination to me. That’s the take-away and also the premise of Seth Rozin’s biting new play “Human Rites,” 85 rigorous minutes of tension, argument and surprise.

Plays like “Human Rites” – thoughtfully written and thought-provoking — are what keep a lot of people, myself included, eagerly going to the theater. Rozin, the producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company has already proved himself as a playwright with style and flair, and this time he focuses on the positions we take that we believe are well-informed. The subject of “Human Rites” is female circumcision, also called female mutilation. What’s your pick?

The choice of Michaela, the African American dean of social science at a major university is clear: That female initiation rite in sub-Saharan African nations is a form of mutilating young women, and a particularly horrific example of the repression of women in male-controlled societies. So when Michaela summons Alan, a well-known Jewish professor of cultural psychology at the university who’s been studying the way African women perceive the rite, she puts him in directly in her crosshairs.

Alan, it turns out, has directed the study of 400 women in four African countries, and is about to put his findings out for publication. They’re not what you might expect. The majority of women interviewed by his team say they believe the practice leads to spiritual and physical improvement. Alan has shared the findings at his sophomore seminar. The students are up in arms.

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They’ve complained to Michaela, who believes the evidence must be faulty and the findings impossible to accept. The result of questionable research methods? A study compromised because a white man from the West was at the helm? The results just can’t be accurate, she tells him.

And they are off to the academic races, taking us along as they gallop from one aspect of the argument to another. It’s a great intellectual ride, cerebral one minute, self-righteousness the next, on the parts of both the dean and the professor. Rozin loads the proceedings with subtext – the two were involved many years ago in a hot fling, adulterous on his part. That baggage probably wasn’t necessary to the plot, but it sure adds sauce to the arguments. Was Alan, for instance, “fetishizing” black women? – a curious indictment from a woman who clearly leaped into the sex that punctuated their constant intellectual arguments at the time.

The astute director Harriet Power keeps the polemics brisk by moving the two academics, plus a graduate student who later joins the fray, around Colin McIlvaine’s eye-popping college-office set, complete with Ivy Leaguish cathedral windows and wood washed in rich cherry stain. Power uses the moves to tell us about the characters’ thoughts as they either pose or react to arguments – the body language from Kimberly S. Fairbanks as the dean, Joe Guzmàn as the professor and Lynnette R. Freeman as the grad student is nearly as powerful as the script.

In a nice touch, the three argue into the end of the working day, and Michaela flips on the light in her office after the sunlight coming through the windows slowly abates. (Jerold Forsyth designed the lighting.) It’s getting darker outside, but inside the dean’s office deeply-held perceptions may be melting under new illumination.

“Human Rites,” produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through April 15 in the Proscenium Theatre to the side of at the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. 215-568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.


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