Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama

A conniving kingmaker and his young protégé conspire to overthrow a popular king. Their plot fails, so they murder him instead. The kingmaker then installs his protégé as ruler. The young king does not properly reward his mentor, however, so the kingmaker selects a new protégé. Together, they torment the young king to the point of madness. He throws himself into the palace moat and drowns.

The brutal power struggle reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, but it actually happened on an island of captive chimpanzees at a Holland zoo during the late 1970s. Emory primatologist Frans de Waal documented the events in his best-selling book “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes."

And now, in a strange case of art aping life, the true story has been turned into a fictional play – with human actors taking the names and roles of the chimpanzee characters.

“We are all apes,” is the central message of “Hominid,” (photo at top shows a rehearsal) playing at Emory Nov. 12-22. Theater Emory commissioned Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater to create the evolution-themed work – a collaboration of playwrights’ imaginations and de Waal’s research. Scenes from a documentary by Bert Haanstra of the chimpanzees are also woven into the stage performance.

“We tell the story as though it’s a human story,” says Ariel de Man, the play’s project director. After receiving her theater degree from Emory in 1998, de Man co-founded Out of Hand, which specializes in working with scientists to translate their research.“There is so much science happening right here in our midst in Atlanta that the general public doesn’t know about,” she says. “Scientists are trained to do research, but they’re not trained to communicate to a non-science audience.”

“Hominid” sets the murder-suicide in a 1920s garden party. “The characters are athletic and graceful and charming,” de Man says. “The point is, it doesn’t matter how educated or sophisticated you are – we are all apes. We are inviting the audience to think about what that means.”

Top evolution scholars from Emory and abroad will also be speaking on campus next week, during a conference, "The Evolution of Mind, Brain and Culture."

Related stories:
Learning morality from monkeys
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution

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