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Mark Waldstein as Martin, Marita Phelps as Calliope, Tracy Leigh as Regina. Photo by Omar Willey.

The Birthday Present

The 14/48 Projects partnered with Infinity Box Theatre Project to produce 14/48: Centrifuge, an event which paired playwrights and science writers to create an evening of 14/48 style theatre. I was fortunate to be paired with Keith Seinfeld, who brought several fascinating topics to the table as possible areas we could cover in our segment. One of those subjects - Homo floresiensis - grabbed me immediately, and I must confess I paid only cursory attention to the "official" theme ("Ready About and Hard Alee" - a sailing term) in favor of trying to really do even a small amount of justice to the discoveries that Keith described to me.

The format of the night was that each science writer presented a talk of up to five minutes, which was followed by each companion play. This alleviated some expository burden on me as a playwright. With Keith's permission, the text of his talk is presented here first to provide the context, then the script of the play follows. My random draw was to write a play for two women and two men; the show was presented June 24-25, 2016.

The smallest humans ever
Keith Seinfeld

If you trace your family tree far enough back – if you could go before the American revolution, and before the Roman Empire or the Han Dynasty, and before civilization itself, you’re probably aware that your family tree leads to Africa. That’s where our species, Homo sapiens first emerged about 200,000 years ago.

Before Homo sapiens were other species of humans, just like we have many species of felines or canines. Our immediate ancestor is Homo erectus – who would look remarkably like any of us in this room – basically the same size and shape. They had stone tools and used fire. They would walk and run and make things. But their brains were a bit smaller.

And you probably know that we have a human cousin, the Neanderthals. They lived at the same time as Homo sapiens – and even breeded with Homo sapiens in Europe . But they went extinct – maybe killed off by Homo sapiens.

So, that’s the basic outline of our ancestry – except in 2003, on an island off the coast of Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean, archaeologists discovered human bones that look different from any of these other types of humans. They're from a period when our hunter-gatherer ancestors had begun to spread out of Africa, across Europe and Asia. What was so shocking about this skeleton – it was an adult human just 3 and half feet tall.

We call it Homo floresiensis. (FLO-rez-see-EN-sis) – named after the island of Flores, where these cousins lived.

These bones ignited a big debate about this creature – whether it really is a different species. Maybe it was a sick and deformed Homo sapien. Maybe it was a sick and deformed Homo erectus. It’s hard to know.

A few weeks ago, we learned that a different team of scientists found another group of bones on the island of Flores. These are similar – small, with a shrunken head, compared to Homo sapiens and Homo erectus. But they are much much older. 700-thousand years old. That’s long before Homo sapiens existed, back when Homo erectus were the only humans on Earth. Or so we thought.

These newly found bones – from three individuals -- seem to support the idea that this creature – which everyone nicknamed the hobbit, for obvious reasons – three feet tall human. This creature was descended from Homo erectus but different. And the reason it was different comes from island life.

It turns out there's an established phenomenon called Island Dwarfism. When large animals end up isolated from their species on an island, they tend to become smaller over long periods of time. Apparently, it’s caused by having less food available on an island. In fact, on that same Flores Island they also found the remains of miniature elephants.

So that’s the basic science. There’s a lot more to learn about these hobbit humans, and probably many more bones to find. It would be really interesting – since some of the bones are as recent as 60-thousand years old – if some DNA could be found. DNA is fragile and doesn’t preserve very well. But we do have DNA from recently extinct creatures like Neanderthals and Wooly Mammoths. The DNA can help us compare two species – and see what they have in common, and if there are crucial differences. And think of all the progress today in manipulating DNA in the laboratory. There’s a lot to be learned if archaeologists find some hair or skin that somehow managed to be preserved.

The Birthday Present
A play for two women & two men
By Scotto Moore

CALLIOPE, the daughter
REGINA, the mother
MARTIN, the father
DR. SYMOND, the scientist

Setting: a living room in an upper middle class home. Calliope sits on a couch next to Regina, perhaps leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder. They sit nearly frozen. Calliope is an eighteen year old woman, although cognitively she may seem younger than she looks.

A doorbell rings. After a beat, Martin enters, crosses opposite and exits to answer the door. We hear him greeting Dr. Symond offstage, then the two men enter. Regina and Calliope perk up to some degree upon their entrance, and rise.

REGINA: Dr. Symond, so good to see you.

DR. SYMOND: Regina, it’s been too long.

REGINA: Calliope, this is the doctor we’ve been expecting.

CALLIOPE: Dr. Symond.

DR. SYMOND: Yes. Do you remember meeting me?

CALLIOPE: No, sir.

DR. SYMOND: That’s understandable, it’s been - at least a year, hasn’t it?

MARTIN: Two years. Dr. Carlisle visited last year. Can I get you anything?

DR. SYMOND: Oh no, don’t trouble yourself. This shouldn’t take long judging by the reports I’ve seen.

They all sit.

DR. SYMOND: Calliope, have your parents told you what to expect today?

MARTIN: We haven’t said much. We’ve told her it won’t be like any of the other examinations, but we weren’t… we couldn’t be more specific than that.

CALLIOPE: Is something wrong with me? Am I sick?

REGINA: No, sweetie, it’s just the opposite.

CALLIOPE: Then why do I need a doctor?

MARTIN: Dr. Symond is a scientist, not a medical doctor.

DR. SYMOND: Today is a special day, Calliope, and not simply because I’m here to see you.

CALLIOPE: It’s my birthday.

DR. SYMOND: It’s your eighteenth birthday, in fact. Do you know what that means?

CALLIOPE: It means I’ve been alive for eighteen years.

DR. SYMOND: Yes, that’s correct. And according to federal regulation, today you are eligible to be considered an adult. How does that sound?

CALLIOPE: I don’t know. Do I get presents?

REGINA: Of course you do. Of course. But - first we need to tell you a story.

CALLIOPE: Shouldn’t you tell me later? We have a guest.

MARTIN: Dr. Symond is a part of the story, Calliope. It’s the story of how you came to join our family.

CALLIOPE: You adopted me.

MARTIN: Yes, yes we did. We chose you, out of all the little girls we could have chosen. You were the one who drew us in. You seemed to need us most.

CALLIOPE: I still need you.

REGINA: That’s what Dr. Symond is here to assess.

DR. SYMOND: Being an adult means you have the freedom to make choices, and the presence of mind to make good choices for yourself in our society. How does that sound?

CALLIOPE: I don’t know.

DR. SYMOND: Martin - Regina - have you decided how you’d like this to go?

MARTIN: How does this normally go?

REGINA: There’s no “normally,” is there.

DR. SYMOND: No, the first two were very different scenarios.

REGINA: Calliope - we need to - we’d like to share with you - a story, about how you were born.

CALLIOPE: About my real parents? Sorry - that was - I was rude. Of course you’re my real parents.

DR. SYMOND: Hmm, good, yes. You’re very kind, Calliope.

CALLIOPE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Perhaps we should review a few basic facts before we tell this story, Calliope. I’m sure Dr. Symond is keen to know how your studies have progressed. Tell us - how are children typically conceived in this country today?

CALLIOPE: The answer largely depends upon class. The wealthiest citizens utilize sophisticated gene editing tools and banks of bioengineered genetic material to ensure healthy, intelligent children of the desired gender designation and cosmetic makeup. The rest of the population continues to utilize sexual reproductive methods to conceive children, resulting in unpredictable genetic combinatorials in the wild.

REGINA: Have you ever speculated about your own conception?

CALLIOPE: I have narrowed it down to two probable explanations. Either, and perhaps most likely, I was an unwanted pregnancy, or else I was genetically designed by parents who then died tragically with no trust in place to care for me. The latter however seems significantly more unlikely, since even eighteen years ago, estate management software was intelligent enough to act legally on behalf of the wealthy.

DR. SYMOND: True, but there is in fact a third explanation.

MARTIN: Calliope, what subject did we learn about most recently in your evolutionary studies program?

CALLIOPE: Homo floresiensis. After decades of paleoanthropological research, scientists announced - oh.

MARTIN: Go on.

CALLIOPE: Scientists announced that scraps of Homo floresiensis DNA had finally been recovered.

REGINA: Yes, exactly. Dr. Symond was one of those very scientists.

CALLIOPE: You’ve been to the island of Flores?

DR. SYMOND: I spent years there, actually. But something drew me back to the continent. No laboratory on the island of Flores would have been sufficient for designing you, my dear girl.

CALLIOPE: I see. Pause. What percentage of my genome is Homo floresiensis?

DR. SYMOND: One hundred percent. A few cosmetic modifications were made to your genome, to help you blend in with other children… a few changes to your skull, to your height, to your skin color... but otherwise you are as nature intended.

CALLIOPE: What a thing to say. Nature intended Homo floresiensis to be extinct.

MARTIN: We’re all a part of nature, Calliope. Our tools may be more sophisticated now, but they’re all products of the same natural underlying processes.

CALLIOPE: Perhaps we must “agree to disagree.”

REGINA: What your father means is - we adopted you and raised you as our child, because we believed you were beautiful from the moment we met you. We weren’t - your father and I could never have afforded to design a child of our own. But - Dr. Symond decided we would make excellent parents for you.

CALLIOPE: You have been excellent parents.

REGINA: You’ve been an excellent daughter.

DR. SYMOND: And will continue to be I’m sure. Do you have any questions for me?

CALLIOPE: Homo floresiensis were known to have extremely tiny brains by comparison to Homo sapiens. Were you expecting me to be significantly less intelligent as a result?

DR. SYMOND: No, dear, we had - surprising evidence to suggest that - the unexpected density of neural clustering in your brain might produce intelligence comparable to the average modern human.

CALLIOPE: What evidence, unless - oh. So I am not alone?

REGINA: Of course you’re not alone. But - there are no others with your genome.

CALLIOPE: But there were others.

MARTIN: Yes. There were two others.

DR. SYMOND: I’m not sure this is appropriate.

MARTIN: It has to be, or everything we’ve done has been wasted.

REGINA: There were two others like you, Calliope… resurrected from the fossil remains of the islanders. The first was brought up like a science experiment… studied and paraded, trapped forever in a laboratory. She lost hope and died in her sleep at the age of ten. The second was brought up with affection, but the full knowledge of her genetic history drove her to violent madness. She was killed by the government at the age of sixteen.

MARTIN: You’re the third. Raised with no knowledge of your genetic history, to be told only when you became an adult.

DR. SYMOND: Or never at all, if that’s what your parents had chosen for you.

CALLIOPE: What an incredible choice to make.

REGINA: Are you glad we chose to tell you?

CALLIOPE: Not that choice - the choice to bring Homo floresiensis back into the world.

DR. SYMOND: On behalf of the government, I’m prepared to offer you full rights of citizenship based on my assessment of your intelligence and personality.

MARTIN: You’d be free to leave the house whenever you choose, without one of us escorting you.

REGINA: You’d be free to study with unrestricted access. Free to communicate with anyone you want, with no more than standard surveillance.

MARTIN: You’d be free - when you feel ready - to live with friends, to find one or several people to bond with romantically or sexually, even to live alone.

CALLIOPE: Am I free to travel?

MARTIN: Of course.

CALLIOPE: Am I free to travel to the island of Flores?

DR. SYMOND: I think I can arrange that.

CALLIOPE: I assume there are countless hidden expectations that accompany your offer of citizenship, Dr. Symond, but I trust my parents. I accept.

DR. SYMOND: Excellent, my dear, excellent. What’s the very first thing you’d like to do with your newfound freedom?

CALLIOPE: I would like very much to kill you. For doing this to me. Pause. But I do not intend to kill you.

DR. SYMOND: Very good. Yes, that’s about perfect, I’d say. Martin - Regina - I’ll send my recommendation to the Institute immediately. I’d expect the documentation to be delivered by morning.

He rises; they rise with him, as he shakes Martin’s hand, then accepts a small hug from Regina. He and Calliope regard each other awkwardly; then Dr. Symond turns to exit.

REGINA: Should we expect to see you again next year?

DR. SYMOND: As long as Calliope’s telemetry is healthy, we shouldn’t need any further annual evaluations. She’s an adult now. I doubt she’ll ever see me again.

CALLIOPE: I wouldn’t be so sure.

DR. SYMOND: Pardon?

CALLIOPE: I said, that’s a shame.

Pause, then Dr. Symond exits.

CALLIOPE: Martin - Regina - I would like to open my presents now.

Lights fade.

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