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At start of Black History Month, theater highlights 'our shared humanity'

ASU Herberger Institute helped nurture development of new play about Malcolm X.
The Acting Company launches 15-city national tour in Phoenix with help from ASU.
January 31, 2017

ASU Herberger Institute co-sponsors theater troupe that will present 'Julius Caesar' and new play about Malcolm X

Shakespeare with a cast of black actors shouldn’t be a big deal, said actor Jonathan-David.

A member of The Acting Company, a renowned New York-based theater troupe, Jonathan-David will be performing around Arizona this month in “Julius Caesar” and “X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation,” kicking off a 15-city national tour.

“An all-white, or predominantly white, audience should be able to see these two plays by very capable actors and see that they transcend color,” he said. 

Timed to Black History Month, The Acting Company will present “X” on Wednesday, a day after “Julius Caesar,” both at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. From there, the group will perform at the Mesa Arts Center and Northern Arizona University before moving on to stops that include Kansas, Maryland, Missouri and New York.

Each of the 10 members of the current cast is African-American. But Jonathan-David wants audiences to see that when it comes to the arts, skin color doesn't matter. “We all deal with the same issues because of our shared humanity,” he said.

If it sounds like an obvious perspective, it’s not. Consider the backlash last year against casting a black Hermione Granger in a theatrical production of Harry Potter (author J.K. Rowling responded about the online commenters, calling them racist and saying, “With my experience of social media, I thought that idiots were going to idiot.”)  

“Historically," said Neal Lester, an ASU English professor and director of Project Humanities, "some audiences can't and won't easily 'suspend their disbelief' because 'these classics have been defined as having Whites Only casts. There was colorization of these classics, including Shakespeare, in the 1930s as part of the Federal Theater Project to make these classics accessible to wider audiences. Still, many can't accept that a good story about our shared humanity is a good story, whoever it is cast.” 

The Acting Company’s Arizona residency is co-sponsored by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the ArtsOther sponsors include the Mesa Arts Center and Northern Arizona University..

Jake Pinholster, associate dean and professor at the institute, said the company’s tour and its premiere of “X” on Feb. 1 is timely.

“Beyond these two shows — one a potentially important new work of American theater — this engagement gives us the chance to experiment with new forms of university-professional relationships, new community partners and better opportunities for our students,” he said.

The shows are part of the company’s new circuit model, centered around consortiums of universities, colleges, high schools and community organizations. In the Phoenix area, the troupe will conduct workshops, classroom visits and public forums, along with the performances.

Organizers hope to engage students, faculty and the community with opportunities to learn from the past while inviting critical dialogue about current events and social issues, artistic director Ian Belknap said.

“Repertory theater can allow for conversations to take place, and it’s a forum to learn,” Belknap said. “It can be an educational tool to fill curiosity and inspire people to examine issues in a new way.”

The Acting Company was founded in 1972 by Oscar winner John Houseman and Margot Harley from the first graduating class of the drama division of The Julliard School. It’s the only permanent, professional touring repertoryRepertory theater usually presents works from a specified repertoire or in rotation with other works. company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Acting Company boasts launching more than 400 careers, including Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone.

Man and woman on stage

Chelsea Williams as Betty Shabazz and Jimonn Cole as Malcolm X in the original play, "X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation." Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

“X,” Belknap said, required a company of black actors. He said it made sense to debut the original work about the life and assassination of Malcolm X in the Valley, since they worked on it here previously.

“Playwright Marcus Gardley and I led a play development workshop at ASU in December 2015,” Belknap said. “It was valuable to get feedback in an academic setting from theater students, who always have great ideas.”

Michael Alexander, a 25-year-old MFA student at Herberger, recalled the work session as “valuable and refreshing.”

“Actors don’t often get an opportunity to see a playwright at work,” Alexander said. “We watched the piece grow in front of our very eyes.”

He said students brainstormed several ideas with Gardley, including Malcolm X being force-fed pork in prison and taking a deeper look at the civil rights leader’s life through Betty Shabazz’s viewpoint.

That greatly appealed to Kyra Jackson, who participated in a couple of workshop sessions with Gardley.

“Strong black women usually take a back seat when it comes to civil rights history,” said Jackson, also an MFA major at Herberger. “It was not only interesting but beautiful to give her a voice.”

Top photo: Jonathan-David as Mark Antony and Gabriel Lawrence as Julius Caesar in The Acting Company's production of "Julius Caesar." Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

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Diagnostics goes digital with technology conceived at ASU

February 1, 2017

Innovation is part of $400 million international Digital Life Alliance aimed at producing a personalized health guide

What if your smartphone could tell you that a potential disease or illness is lurking in your immune system? What if instead of contracting diabetes, you were able to stop it before it compromised your health — maybe even before you or your physician see any outward signs? This is the driving idea behind an international group of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs that will soon change the way we understand our health.  

An Arizona State University discovery is central to the launch of this invention that “will give people a deeper understanding of the medical, behavioral and environmental factors that can accelerate disease or optimize health,” according to a recent announcement by Jun Wang (pictured above), iCarbonX founder and creator of the Digital Life Alliance, based in Shenzhen, China.

ImmunoSignature, the diagnostic platform developed by ASU Biodesign Institute research scientists Stephen Albert Johnston and Neal Woodbury, was the final piece needed to complete this potentially revolutionary approach to health care. With a single drop of blood, this diagnostic powerhouse can detect diseases that involve an immune response (autoimmune, cancer, infectious disease, metabolic and neurologic diseases).

“My goal has always been to detect illness before it begins,” said Johnston, who is also a professor in the School of Life Sciences. “In other words, I would like to see the concept of the patient become extinct. That is the only way we can truly stop the relentless increases in the cost of health care. With this new alliance, we are closer than ever.”

Johnston predicts that the technology to track and report disease biomarkers directly to patients could be available within five years.

Backed by a $400 million investment, the Digital Life Alliance, which includes HealthTell as one of seven core companies, will “merge genetic, biological and patient-generated data with sequencing and AI (artificial intelligence) technology to instantly detect meaningful signals about health, disease and aging, and deliver a personalized guide for living a healthy life,” according to Wang.

“Who could have imagined 10 years ago that with the right diagnostic, a single drop of blood could detect 50 different diseases?” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Scientists with expertise, imagination and boundless aspiration are who we recruit to Arizona, ASU and Biodesign. Today, we are being recognized as a powerhouse in the world of innovation and for generating use-inspired solutions. iCarbonX’s significant investment in technologies conceived at ASU is a real demonstration of what can happen when public and private enterprises bring their best minds together.”

It is estimated the U.S. alone spends $3.2 trillion for health care. Organizers say this new innovation to catch diseases early will result in not only in mammoth cost savings, but most importantly, will save lives and help eradicate the challenges faced by those who suffer from illness.

The Biodesign Institute represents the state’s largest single investment in research infrastructure in the history of Arizona. The Biodesign Institute launched in 2004 with $69 million from the state’s Technology and Research Innovation Fund.

According to Johnston, HealthTell’s high-density peptide array platform is the first real-time assessment that will be simple, inexpensive and comprehensive. The HealthTell technology, particularly when combined with data from the other Digital Life Alliance partners, has the potential to enable health monitoring using a single drop of blood that is analyzed on a regular basis. The route to this discovery has been published in Nature Communications and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It turns out that some of the leading causes of death — both infectious and chronic diseases such as cancer — give rise to immune responses fairly early in the course of a disease. These snapshots of the immune system, called immunosignatures, provide an in-depth picture of a person’s health. 

“The idea is to change medicine from post-symptomatic to pre-symptomatic. To do that, you have to monitor healthy people and figure out early what’s happening to them,” said Johnston, who directs the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. With our rapidly aging population and collaborative spirit, Johnston envisions Arizona as a possible “R&D proving ground,” where we can get ahead of disease and its costs.

Johnston has already successfully demonstrated the potential of immunosignature profiling for diagnosing people suffering from more than 50 different diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. In addition, the versatile technology could be used to safeguard the security of our nation’s blood supply or give early warning of a disease epidemic.

“We can only reach this audacious goal if we successfully integrate traditionally separate fields of expertise into one collaborative ecosystem,” Wang said. As former CEO of the Beijing Genomics Institute, Wang has built the world’s largest DNA sequencing hub, which aims to make genomic information a routine part of every medical checkup. His iCarbonX ecosystem includes HealthTell, SomaLogic, PatientsLikeMe, AOBiome, GALT, Imagu and Robustnique.

“We have developed a state-of-the-art core research facility here at Biodesign and welcome like-minded collaborators who will continue to push the envelope on what health and disease information we can glean from immunosignatures,” said Johnston. “Just recently, we were able to use the technology to successfully detect chronic fatigue syndrome, which even I didn’t think was possible. Now, there is a clinical trial underway in Norway based on these results.”

The new Digital Life Alliance will further the business development growth of HealthTell, which has its manufacturing hub located in Chandler, Arizona, as well as bring investments to spur further research advancements at ASU’s Biodesign Institute through the spinout agreements made possible by Arizona Technology Enterprises, the intellectual-property arm of ASU.

A 2014 report by the Seidman Research Institute reported that the Biodesign Institute has made an economic impact of $1.5 billion since it was established 10 years ago. Its annual direct economic impact is the highest for any single bioscience research institute in the state. Biodesign operations have created and supported more than 1,600 high‐paying jobs and generated $10.5 million in state and local tax revenues.

Top photo: Jun Wang, founder of digital biotechnology firm iCarbonX, showcases the Meum app that will use reams of health data, including technology first developed at ASU, to provide customized medical advice. Backed by a $400 million investment, the Digital Life Alliance, which includes ASU spinout HealthTell as one of seven core companies, will “merge genetic, biological and patient-generated data with sequencing and AI (artificial intelligence) technology to instantly detect meaningful signals about health, disease and aging, and deliver a personalized guide for living a healthy life,” Wang said.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications