When Westerners decry the practices of other cultures, and campaign for change, they may mean well. But are they really spreading enlightenment, or shame? Who gets to decide whether an initiation rite is barbaric or an exemplary form of bonding? Are there any cultural absolutes, or are all cultural norms equally valid?
This constellation of questions animates Seth Rozin’s crafty and invigorating one-act play, Human Rites, the third production of InterAct Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary season.
Rozin, the company’s producing artistic director, has wed crackling dialogue with provocative ideas and believable characters. And Human Rites gets the Philadelphia premiere it deserves, with Barrymore Award winner Harriet Power directing a trio of stellar actors: Kimberly S. Fairbanks, Barrymore Award winner Joe Guzmán, and Barrymore Award nominee Lynnette R. Freeman.
Inspired, in part, by the life and research of anthropologist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu and a controversial paper by University of Chicago cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, Human Rites is not for the squeamish. Rozin’s case study for examining clashing cultural perspectives is the practice variously referred to as female circumcision or female genital mutilation (the more loaded term). As one might expect, male circumcision also finds itself in the crosshairs, along with abortion, slavery, and assisted living.
Rozin gives all three of his characters strong, persuasive arguments. No one here is a villain, although Fairbanks’ dean does stumble into self-righteousness. You may remain skeptical – I am –of the notion that cultural practices can’t be fairly judged by outsiders. But you will likely leave the theater engaged in the debate.
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