Darwin in the Dreamtime

While the heyday of the bumpersticker wars between the Jesus fish and the Darwin mammal may be past, the conflict rages on in the halls of our legislatures and schools. But is this battle between spirituality and science really a winner-take-all proposition?

This question is at the root of the new locally-developed play, Darwin in the Dreamtime, now running at Boulder's Nomad Theatre. In this fictional account, Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, the elderly Sarah, lies on her deathbed, haunted by the notion that, Social Darwinism, a derivative of her famous relative's theory of evolution, is responsible for the near annihilation of native cultures and their priceless ecological habitats.

Photo of Ash Dargan (Spirit Musician), Jerine Guest (Mamala), and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo (Sarah Darwin)
Ash Dargan (Spirit Musician),
Jerine Guest (Mamala), and
Erica Sarzin-Borrillo (Sarah Darwin
As Sarah's consciousness drifts, she is visited by Samuel, her African-American medical attendant, Mamala, a deceased native acquaintance from her childhood, and Charles Darwin, on his way to a famous debate 140 years in the past. Ready to leave this world for the next, Sarah is sent back by Mamala who tells her that she still has work to do.

Photo of Paul Borrillo (Charles Darwin), Kw Brock Johnson (Samuel), and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo (Sarah Darwin)
Paul Borrillo (Charles Darwin),
Kw Brock Johnson (Samuel), and
Erica Sarzin-Borrillo (Sarah Darwin)
At first, Kw Brock Johnson's upbeat Samuel keeps the weak Sarah alive against her will, matter-of-factly monitoring her life support systems and tending to her basic needs. As it becomes more difficult for Sarah to separate her material and dream worlds, Samuel humors her conversations with her invisible visitors, Mamala and Darwin. Johnson mines this ambiguous situation perfectly, juggling sarcasm with hilarious facial indications and body language, providing much needed comic relief from the heady philosophic discussions that swirl around him.

As the dying, but still intellectually cogent, Sarah, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo deftly blends the physical mannerisms of an aged woman with the measured, razor-sharp musings of a lifelong intellectual. Using her knowledge of modern scientific discoveries to advantage, Sarzin-Borrillo's Sarah gains the temerity to put the normally unflappable Darwin on the defensive.

Photo of Jerine Guest (Mamala) and Paul Borrillo (Charles Darwin)
Jerine Guest (Mamala) and
Paul Borrillo (Charles Darwin)
Sarah is aided by Mamala, who, in Jerine Guest's hands, is the embodiment of magical realism, an earth mother animated by heavenly heart. She gives Sarah the strength to confront the imposing Darwin.

At first, flitting in and out of Sarah's dreamtime like a personified version of the White Rabbit, Paul Borrillo's formally attired Darwin is a pleasant, if stiff, chap, patronizing the two women for their superstitions and lack of logical rigor. Gradually, however, as Darwin realizes that some of the evidence for his theory has been challenged by contemporary research, Borrillo allows the seeds of doubt to color his characterization. Then, as Darwin's intellectual crisis is compounded failing health and his wife's strong religious faith, Borrillo turns Darwin reflective, setting up a surprising, but believable, catharsis.

Directed by Donald Berlin, Darwin in the Dreamtime mixes well-drawn characters with complex, yet natural discussion. Transitions in the story are accompanied by visitations from an aboriginal Spirit Musician, performed by noted didgeridoo artist Ash Dargan, whose melodies evoke the dreamtime world of the Australian outback. At key moments, evocative video and slide sequences immerse the audience in ethereal landscapes, natural settings, and diverse wildlife.

The weakness of the production is its intellectual argument: it attempts to undermine the misguided philosophy of Social Darwinism ("survival of the fittest" as public policy) by attacking the theory of evolution, then offering the harmony of native culture as an alternative to empirical thinking.

To do this, the playwrights, David and Lila Tresemer, cite archeological and physiological evidence that was not available to Darwin. But, such contrived arguments do not alter the validity of evolution, or undermine it's ill-conceived derivatives.

Social Darwinism fails as a logical extension to evolution because it does not account for the fact that its own behavior threatens the integrity of the biosphere and the survival of the human race, thus in its own application it renders itself obsolete.

Also counter-evolutionary is the depiction of native and modern mind-sets as separate and distinct. Within each are the seeds of the other. We have evolved from holistic cultures only to find that at the center of our science is the same great unknown from which we started: the extrapolation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle—which states that one cannot simultaneously know both the precise position and momentum of a given object—is that the core force that animates creation cannot be quantified.

Another proposition that rankles is that scientists and philosophers are responsible for the actions other people take in the name of their theories. But the teachings of Jesus, Marx, Darwin, Freud, etc., are not invalidated by so-called Christians who worship Mammon, socialists who excuse totalitarianism, evolutionists who argue for cultural imperialism, or psychologists who see all behavior as sexually motivated.

Finally, was the popularization of the idea of "survival of the fittest" the cause of third world destruction, as Sarah believes? No, rather Social Darwinism simply gave pseudo-scientific credibility to a philosophy of moral superiority already in place among industrialized Caucasians. Nearly a half century before Darwin, for example, Manifest Destiny was used justify Western expansion and the slaughter of Native Americans by transplanted Europeans. The impetus for these ruthless activities was the juggernaut of capitalist expansion, and its need for the rich natural resources of North America. Social Darwin was only a shabby smokescreen for this greed, much like the threat of weapons of mass destructions were used to justify our seizure of 11% of the world's oil reserves in Iraq.

Just as the absolute and linear world of Euclid and Newton gave way to the relativistic and curved universe of Einstein and Heisenberg, so too must Darwin's ideas be carried beyond the mechanistic notion of physical adaptation, and might (or cunning) makes right: the next evolutionary step of humankind is a conscious spiritual choice beyond the tyranny of the instincts and ego to a world where we share what little resources we have. Or, as W. H. Auden wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939, "We must love one another or die."

Darwin in the Dreamtime runs at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder through November 2nd. 303-774-4037.

Bob Bows


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