“The origin of the play for me,” said Madeleine George, author of Precious Little, “was when I heard about a group of apes in a language study that was defunded. The apes got distributed to other kinds of laboratory studies that were non-cognitive, like pharmaceutical.”
She continued, “I had this image of a great ape who had learned to communicate effectively with human beings suddenly finding the relationship with its keepers radically altered.”
Precious Little begins March 2 by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theatre. The Nora’s mission is to promote the Feminine Perspective, so what should audiences expect?
“First, it’s funny,” George said. “It tries to have big, sincere emotional encounters with the audience all the way through. Big laughs, big ethical dilemma, big heartbreak.”
The play centers around Brodie, a research linguist who learns that her unborn child has a genetic abnormality affecting language. Brodie struggles to accept her child’s future without words to communicate. Turning to her grad student girlfriend for support, Brodie instead finds comfort in two unlikely sources: an elderly woman who speaks a dying language, and a gorilla at the zoo. Three actors play ten roles in this exploration of the limits of human language and the power of connection.
Said the playwright, “It really tries to, in a gentle way, hold up a mirror to people that gets them to look at their own assumptions about what it means to be human as opposed to an animal.”
How have her assumptions evolved?
“I studied linguistics as an undergraduate,” she said, “and an article of faith among linguists is that human beings are the only creatures who have language. Other kinds of animals communicate in many fascinating and subtle ways, but they don’t use language. And that makes humans special. I followed that line.”
She went on, “But over time I began to learn more about how animals actually do communicate, and it seemed to me that prioritizing human language as a communication system is arbitrary. In fact, there are a lot of things we can’t do, like use sonar or detect extremely subtle emotional changes in creatures of other species. That shift in me is what I put into the protagonist of Precious Little—that search for a more expansive approach to connection onto this image of the decommissioned signing gorilla.”
In addition to Precious Little, her plays include Hurricane Diane, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (Pulitzer Prize finalist; Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award), Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (Susan Smith Blackburn finalist), and The Zero Hour (Jane Chambers Award, Lambda Literary Award finalist).
Madeleine has been writing plays for twenty years. She is a founding member of the Obie-Award-winning playwrights’ collective 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.), the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Two River Theater in New Jersey, and—her “day job,” she told me—a Fellow for Curriculum and Program Development at the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College. (This initiative offers college opportunity inside prisons in New York State and across the country through a network of private institutions. Madeleine previously ran a college inside a prison in New York City; now her work focuses on curriculum development.)
All her plays take on big topics. Precious Little questions language and the human-animal barrier. Hurricane Diane addresses climate change. Others look at big data and robotics. She is currently working on a new play—a commission from the Big Ten Theatre Consortium—about the history of the relationship between human beings and dogs.
“I think the theatre is great for addressing big picture topics,” she said, “sort of paradoxically because it can’t do scale very well. The theatre is human size no matter what you do. Because it’s necessarily going to be about a small-scale relationship, if you can figure out how to get the small-scale relationship to ask the big questions, then it’s like the perfect doorway for people to enter through to ask the big questions.
“That’s what the Greeks are like, what Shakespeare is like—huge, timeless dilemmas shrunk down to the size of a couple of actors. It gives people a chance to go mano a mano with these unsolvable problems, which we all are dealing with in our daily life. Everyone is on the horn with these dilemmas just walking through the world. How do I prioritize one thing I value against another thing? How do I work this new political reality into my life at my job? This human sized version of massive problems is how we live. The theatre is such a great medium for that.”
Precious Little runs March 2-26 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For tickets and Information visit CentralSquareTheater.org or call 617.576.9278 x1.