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BIPOC scientists explore barriers, equity in ‘Young Nerds of Color’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
BIPOC scientists explore barriers, equity in ‘Young Nerds of Color’
Daniel Rios, Jr., Kortney Adams, James Ricardo Milord, Lindsey McWhorter, Alison Yueming Qu, and Karina Beleno Carney in “Young Nerds of Color.” PHOTO: NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Science takes the stage at Central Square Theater in Cambridge this month, with “Young Nerds of Color,” an Underground Railway production arranged by playwright Melinda Lopez and directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Drawn from more than 60 interviews with diverse scientists, the production explores the challenges and victories of working in the field as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) individual.

Daniel Rios, Jr with other cast members in “Young Nerds of Color.” PHOTO: NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Taking key themes and stories from these interviews, “Young Nerds of Color” creates an imaginary encounter among a group of these scientists. Like most fields, in science there are significantly greater barriers to entry for marginalized communities. Lopez remarks that the play works against the narrative that science is egalitarian and without bias.

“Smart people of color are not the exception; they are the norm. We forget that. Intelligence is not the purview of the white community,” says Simmons. “But the way that it’s borne out, the way that it’s enacted, is different by people’s cultural identity, by their gender identity. All of these things shape how we come to ideas. And that is a good thing.”

There is real bias in the field to be tackled — but there is also hope and joy. Lopez says that passion for the work was one of the overwhelming themes she heard in her interviews. That passion often translated into a kind of musicality.

Weaving together science and art, the production utilizes original music by composer Nona Hendryx. “I, from the beginning, experienced this piece as though it was symphonic,” says Lopez. “I knew that having lots of voices in the play was going to be critically important to its success, and more and more I started hearing these voices as instruments.” The jazzy, upbeat score emulates the vibrant creativity found both in labs and on stages.

Lindsey McWhorter and Alison Yueming Qu in “Young Nerds of Color”. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

Simmons was brought in early in the project’s workshop period to help shape these stories into a cohesive performance. Part of that was creating scientific touch points for a lay audience to make the piece more accessible to audience members who aren’t, say, experts in string theory. Basic scientific concepts that most people would have learned in school are used to build a connection between scientist and viewer.

“Young Nerds of Color” was in process well before the pandemic hit. Lopez went back and re-conducted interviews with a few of the scientists to see how COVID-19 had impacted their work and their lives. She has found that the pandemic also affects how audiences approach the work. “In some ways, I think audiences are going to come to this show with much more background knowledge than they would have if we had done the production in 2018,” she says.

For white audiences, the creative team hopes the show inspires radical change in these white-dominated institutions. For the young nerds of color in the audience, the team hopes they feel seen, and know that there is support to be had on this journey.

“I hope viewers leave with a song, and I hope they leave with a wider understanding of why it’s so critically important to have a multiplicity of points of view,” says Lopez. “The work is better when there are people of different backgrounds and life experiences contributing.”

“Young Nerds of Color” runs through March 20 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.