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Memory Play

Clarinda Mac Low talks about the science of art, collaboration, and creation. logo

At a time when black Americans were still in the early days of their struggle for acceptance and equality, a black developmental biologist named Dr. Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) was forming revolutionary ideas about cellular development and embryonic growth. Inspired by his life and work, performer and choreographer Clarinda Mac Low has created The Division of Memory, a theater piece that takes place in a fever dream that the doctor has in his last moments of life. Writer/performer James Hannaham and writer Tanya Barfield worked with Mac Low on the piece, which explores science, history, and race through the eyes of a man whose life brought all of these elements together in a powerful way.

TheaterMania spoke with Mac Low about how she came to create a play about Dr. Just, and about her own interesting history.


THEATERMANIA: The first thing I'd like to talk about are your two very different fields of study. You're a director and choreographer, but you've also done AIDS research. Are you first an artist or a scientist?

CLARINDA MAC LOW: Well, my parents are artists, so of course I decided I had to be a scientist. I really didn't expect to be an artist when I was in college at all. I was planning to be a research scientist, then I decided to double major in Dance and Biochemistry. And then there was a big dramatic moment in my senior year when it became clear that I was not going to be going to graduate school; I was going to come back to New York and become a performer.

TM: Do you think it was your parents' influence that kicked in?

CML: No, not at all. My parents are both scientific in their own way. My brother is an astrophysicist. So, there's a lot of science in the family. It's just that I have a theory that we always end up--or we should end up--doing what we want to do when we're really little, and when I was really little I always thought I would be a performer. That was before I got practical. Also, I wanted to save the world; that was a big thing. You know, I thought science was more likely to save the world than performing, so I was going to be a scientist. But it's more complicated than that!

TM: So you eventually decided you wanted to go into performance?

CML: Well, I had been in plays and performances all my life and I'd made up all kinds of little things; I used to draw and write, constantly creating. But it was when I formally started putting together performances that I was completely hooked. I'm not really cut out to be just a scientist. It's a skill, and it was a skill I was able to use when I started doing AIDS research in the '80s. It was kind of like, 'Okay, I need to make money, I'm not making money off my art yet, so what do I do?' I knew that I could be a research technician and have a lot of flexible time. Back then, a lot of people were afraid to do AIDS research, but I said 'Well, I don't see the problem here; it's a controlled situation.' I hooked up with some great people who were very understanding of me being an artist and were doing really interesting work. That went on for awhile, but as my artistic career was becoming more available, I had to switch to something where I didn't have to show up to somebody else's place to work.

TM: Did you immediately want to mix science and art?

CML: No, I had never done that. I think it might have been partly because I was stubborn. I see science as just another beautiful aesthetic system. It's not the absolute truth; it's a metaphor for something else, the way everything is a metaphor. But I was dealing with content in my work more and more, and I was dealing with form a lot, and then I was starting to want to connect all these things I think about all the time--politically, socially, and scientifically. Somehow, that came together through the figure of this guy, Ernest Everett Just, who I'd known about practically all my life.

TM: How did you first find out about him?

CML: My father gave me an article from Scientific American when I was in high school or college. I read the article and was so intrigued by this idea of synthesis--the idea that you should synthesize and collaborate, rather than specialize and disperse. While I was working on my last piece, I started to become obsessed with the idea, because it addressed all of the things that I thought were important in American History. Like how race is internal to our history, the way that science is set up in a certain way for a certain kind of economic system, and how everything is kind of intertwined. Dr. Just, as a figure, had all of that because he followed Biology philosophically as well. His ideas were kind of weird and, once he stopped being a really good technical guy and started getting all philosophical, people got a little nervous. So this is kind of a way for me to bring concerns that I think about, read about, and talk about into my work. I have this grandiose plan: a visceral experience of history. What is it like to have lived history? And since Dr. Just is dying, we get this whole dreamy thing. To have a character to hook onto like this was a new thing for me. That's why I needed collaborators like Tanya and James, who are so good at that. They're so rich in their ability to create a theatrical play. Between the three of us, it's become's become what it is! It evolves. I have a lot of ideas about using different media.

TM: Do you use a bit of everything in The Division of Memory--video, dance, and so on?

CML: This is less dance. I wouldn't say it's dance at all. It's very much like video theater, and that's a little odd for me. But, you know, you just gotta do what the piece demands. I'm not going to put dance in there if it doesn't fit.

TM: So, using Dr. Just as a springboard, you're able to kind of explore history, race, science, and philosophy equally?

James Hannaham as Dr. Ernest Everett Just
in The Division of Memory
CML: Yeah. I'm hoping! I feel like, between the three of us, we may not have solved the problem but we have started working on a solution. It's a strange synthesis that I could never think up. We want to honor Dr. Just as much as possible. This is experimental theater, and so we're using the experiment to its fullest extent. We also want to be both entertaining and accessible while also finding a way to talk about things that, again, isn't didactic.

TM: Do you feel a connection between Dr. Just's work and your research work?

CML: No, but I feel a connection with his struggle as a research scientist. Being a research scientist is, in a lot of ways, like being an artist. That was one recognizable feeling I got from examining his struggle to get funded and to do original work. It's very hard, and was almost impossible for him because he was black. He didn't have access to the places that had the most researchers, so he was wandering around looking for funding, support, and resources, but he had these amazing ideas that he could have developed. Also, in terms of how a scientific community is set up, I feel like I'm connected to how research is done. I know what it's like to spend hours and hours doing the most meticulous thing; I can definitely relate to that viscerally. And James can relate to a lot of what he experienced as a black scientist in a predominantly white world. We all connected to something within him. That really helped us to bring it alive.

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