How many riffs and variations can be conjured from the letters DNA? The Black Women Playwrights' Group has come up with plenty, ranging from sober meditations on deoxyribonucleic acid -- the genetic blueprint that defines and binds -- to the surly declaration "Don't need his [behind]."
"DNA: Drama, Nuance, Attitude" is the title of the refreshing omnibus show that opened over the weekend at the Mead Theater Lab. It's a collection of 14 monologues by a dozen writers, presented in collaboration with the Young Playwrights' Theater and directed with an attentive ear by Lisa Rose Middleton. The performance is an unembellished affair: two actors and a largely bare stage are all it takes.
"Drama" is the subject in the first act, and it's saturated with family agonies. "You can't worry about every little thing people don't say," says the troubled ex-college football star in E. Christi Cunningham's "Runs in the Family." The character, appropriately played with an overgrown boyishness by David Lamont Wilson, races through a grab bag of memories as he eagerly waits on the street for his father, roughing in a complicated relationship that includes more than its share of violence and flight.
In "My Baby's Daddy," Pat Crews invokes Jerry Springer-style romantic meltdowns but quickly transcends trashy laughs as a woman throws out her cheating boyfriend and then traces the surprising source of her hard-won strength and wisdom. (Naturally, it's someone on her DNA chain.) This is one of the few playlets in which the two actors share the stage, with a little high-energy arguing near the beginning that Wilson and Josette Marina Murray handle well: He's caught but still cool as she explodes colorfully.
There is a glaring pattern in "Drama": All of the first-act monologues deal, in one way or another, with paternity. Wilson plays a gentle old widower of uncertain parentage in Betty Miller Buttram's upbeat nature-vs.-nurture monologue, "Where I'm From." Wilson immediately reappears as a tough-talking father stuffing his school-age son with terse, profane, angry advice in Michael Phillip Edwards's "Strong Man on the Bus." (Edwards, the lone male writer in the bunch, provides another sketch of machismo going overboard in the second act with "The Sweet Love.") In Karen James Cody's "Insurance," the paternity is only speculative, but the possibility is fraught: It's a post-rape tale, told with impressively channeled rage by Murray. The insurance that the character speaks of through clenched teeth is locked in her fist, and Cody strings out its mystery without coming off as melodramatic.
The second act is lighter, starting with Debbie Minter Jackson's "DNA From Far Away," a rhapsody for two voices that's nearly bonkers in its ecstatic contemplation of love. ("Could it be the medication?" one of the speakers wonders after a particularly purple passage.) This is billed as the "Nuance" portion of the show, but it's on the sluggish side. There is a fair amount of meandering in such backward-looking offerings as Louise V. Gray's "My Grandmother Was an Indian" and C. Jeanean Gibbs's "Divine Nature of the Ancestors."
The act finishes with "Attitude": Murray's giddy turn as a menopausal "dramatic neurotic actress" spending "dull nights alone" in Debra Mims-Reese's "A Diva's New Attitude," followed by "Do Not Aretha," Lois A. Wiley's catty advice for the Queen of Soul, served in dishy style (and with a few falsetto trills) by Wilson. Here, as with the more earnest material, the monologues benefit from a light, straightforward touch; it's a nice night for the writers.
DNA: Drama, Nuance, Attitude. Directed by Lisa Rose Middleton. Set design, Isaiah M. Wooden; lights, Ted Parker; sound design, David Lamont Wilson. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Aug. 8 at the Mead Theater Lab, 916 G St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.