“Young Nerds of Color” amplifies underrepresented voices in science on stage

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Melinda Lopez said she hopes her extensive research will help her show uplift underrepresented aspiring scientists. Photo courtesy Adam De Tour.

Alexis Zacharakos, news correspondent

“Young Nerds of Color” is a visually dynamic theatrical production that sheds light on racial inequalities in STEM. As a show years in the making, playwright and Northeastern theatre professor Melinda Lopez said she hopes her extensive research, interviewing and preparation will help her show uplift underrepresented aspiring scientists who need to feel acknowledged and accepted. 

From their research, Lopez and the production team discovered that the scientific field is not impartial, despite popular belief. Systemic racism in the field dictates what information is published and who has the resources to conduct research, causing scientists with privilege to have the most influence on what people know. 

“[Overrepresented scientists] are going to have a particular view on research they’re doing, and that is limiting science,” Lopez said.

Many perceive science as a field and practice free of bias and as a bellwether of truth. But scientific findings are limited due to racial uniformity in the lab. The Pew Research Center found in 2019 that while white workers comprised 67% of the workforce in STEM, Hispanic people made up just 8% and Black people 9%. Experts say that as science continues to be conducted by racially homogenous groups, findings will fail to address questions that pertain to diverse populations.

“Young Nerds of Color” will take stage at Central Square Theater in Cambridge Feb. 3, 2022. It aims to raise awareness of these diversity issues in science.

“Expect amazing jazz music, thoughtful, fascinating BIPOC excellence in the sciences, an introduction to people who are so smart and interesting and a visually stunning production,” Lopez said.”

— Melinda Lopez

Debra Wise is the artistic director at the Underground Railway Theatre. About five years ago, a conversation between Lopez, Wise and Yale epidemiologist Brandon Obgunu, sparked the realization that there aren’t enough theatrical productions that feature scientists of color. This is when the concept of “Young Nerds of Color” was born. 

The production team spoke with over 60 scientists who identify as people of color. The scientists discussed what it’s like being the only person of their race in the room. Reflecting the experiences of the scientists interviewed, the characters in “Young Nerds of Color” describe how their racial background shapes the trajectory of their lives. 

Complications including documentation for citizenship, financial setbacks and racism, dictate the opportunities available for those who hope to go to college, earn a degree and get a job. As shown in the play, people of color who make it to college feel an additional burden to represent their race. 

Following the murder of George Floyd and the Atlanta spa shootings, scientists were re-interviewed to incorporate the effect of timely events on their experiences.

“This is one of those plays that’s really an attempt to address the moment, so we had to keep in the moment,” Wise said.

Initially, Lopez planned for the play to consist of fictional characters loosely based on the real-life scientists, but the interviews were so memorable that she found no need to fabricate dialogue in the production. 

“The interviews were so riveting that I decided at some point to just work from the text of just what people said,” Lopez said. “So we’ve crafted a show that really uses all their words.”

Presumptions driven by racist rationale are described by the play’s characters in the script. Crucial role models like teachers and mentors don’t expect Black people to succeed in the sciences, causing scientists of color to often doubt their own abilities. The performance also exposes stories of bigoted teachers, biased workplaces and ignored intelligence.

Lopez said one scientist called “Young Nerds of Color” the “anti-gaslighting play.”

Des Bennett, dramaturg of the show, said predominantly white scientific institutions give little attention to the discoveries of BIPOC scientists. 

One scientist in the play was advised to remove their ethnic background from their website to avoid discrediting. Another was told to abandon their ethnic dialect in the name of professionalism. Through these scenes, the play reveals barriers that scientists of color face while working in the lab with their white counterparts.  

The team behind the scenes of “Young Nerds of Color” said the production has much to offer its audience. It’s simultaneously a celebration of science and an exposé of the unknown struggles that scientists of color grapple with on a regular basis. 

The production team coalesced elements of art and science to make a show that is interdisciplinary. “Young Nerds of Color” reminds the audience of the similarities between fields that are often considered mutually exclusive.

“[Science and art] are not separate and they never really have been,” Bennett said. “Science in itself is a creative practice. You have to be creative to be a good scientist.”

The audience could be filled with people with a love for science or the arts, so Lopez is unsure of what exactly the audience will gain from the show. However, she said she is certain that any nerd of color watching will be happy with it.

Starting Jan. 11, 2022, rehearsals will be held for three and a half weeks leading up to the first performance Feb. 3. It will be the theater’s biggest show since its reopening from the coronavirus lockdown. “Young Nerds of Color” will run for five weeks.

While “Young Nerds of Color” points out diverse and underrepresented viewpoints, the team hopes it will also illuminate that people are more alike than they are different. 

“I’m hoping that audiences are able to understand that science and wonder can be a part of anyone’s life,” Bennett said.