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Grey Matter 

In Relativity , Kalima (Donna Duplantier, left) celebrates with Malik (Lance Nichols) and her mother (Troi Bechet) but their respective careers are about to clash. In the 18th century, scientists hypothesized a substance call phlogiston to explain combustion. We laugh now at the odd byways of science like phlogiston, but Einstein's time-space continuum is pretty far out in its own way.

In Relativity, currently on the boards at Southern Rep, Einstein's theory is glancingly referred to by a group of black proponents of the "melanin theory." They believe that melanin (the substance responsible for the pigmentation of their skin) also gives their brains a special boost, making black people (or "melanated" people) superior mentally, physically and spiritually to the non-melanated.

Cassandra Medley's 2006 play focuses on some melanin believers. It's an unexpectedly engaging drama because the opposing points of view are personified by individuals who are related. Personal loyalty and a ferocious family dynamic raise the stakes in this scientific controversy.

The stage is bare: a wooden floor, a huge backdrop that looks like a grid, two giant metal likenesses of the genetic double helix. This simplified, almost geometric setting (created by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) is an apt battle ground for the clash of ideas and wills that follows.

The play starts with a brief scene that's both mysterious and significant. Kalima (Donna Duplantier), a young light-skinned black woman, is listening to a hand-held tape player. A man's recorded voice keeps repeating one phrase: "if new information comes to light, we must be prepared to change our hypothesis." Kalima is obviously excited by this announcement and runs off. Later, the significance will become apparent. In the tight construction of the play, many mysterious moments resurface with great relevance.

Claire (Troi Bechet) and Malik (Lance Nichols) enter, wearing African robes. They address the audience, which is temporarily cast as the membership of the Melanin Institute. This is the 30th anniversary of the institute. It was founded by Claire's deceased husband and she is carrying the torch he lit, with the help of Malik, who is her current significant other.

The case they make for melanin superiority is not rabid or hateful, but it's as flawed in its way as the cases some whites make for the inferiority of blacks. There is a kind of candy-coated populism at the core. But more to the point, the melanin people claim their theories are scientific, and Claire and Malik seem to be haranguing their membership with absolute, proven facts. But these leaders are more like prophets preaching their own faith than seekers of the truth --Êwherever that inquiry would lead them.

That distinction is precisely where things get touchy. Kalima is a scientist. She's working on genetic research, specifically on cloning. She tries as much as humanly possible to follow the truth according to the methods of science. So how is she to deal with her mother, whom she loves and who loves her? Her mother who is carrying the torch her father lit. It turns out that the voice on the tape is Kalima's father announcing the institute must keep an open mind to advances in research.

Now comes another mysterious moment that fits in later and grows into a major issue of the play. A brisk, self-assured black woman in western clothes crosses in front of the stage, talking into her cell phone. She's lambasting Claire, the institute and the melanin theory as hogwash.

Later, we learn this woman, Dr. Preston (Sharon London), is the chairwoman of the Federation of Black Scientists -- a group vehemently opposed to the melanin theory. In addition, she's an extremely prestigious scholar and scientist. The plot thickens when Preston becomes head of the lab where Kalima works.

Kalima is ashamed to work with the woman who has attacked her mother. She considers resigning, but Preston has much to offer in the way of career opportunities. She dangles these status jewels in front of Kalima who is torn between two mothers, between loyalty to her family and loyalty to her vocation.

Another complication comes in the form of Kalima's coworker and boyfriend, a personable guy named Dan (Trey Burvant) who is white. Their lovers' spats easily slip over into racial distrust, and then there's the demon of competition between partners.

Under Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe's direction, the cast gives strong, truthful and engrossing performances. The production moves fluidly and rapidly from location to location while Luther Gray provides tasteful congo drum accompaniment.

Relativity is topnotch theater. Melanin may explain race about as clearly as phlogiston explained fire, but we come to feel for these people amid their longings and their struggles, regardless of their beliefs.

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