Emily Chen ’15, THURJ Staff
DR. JOHN MATHEW, a native of the state of Kerala, India, received his Bachelors, Masters and M.Phil degrees in Zoology at the Madras Christian College in Madras (now Chennai), the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. Since then, he has received a Ph.D in Ecology from Old Dominion University and a Masters in Medical Anthropology from Harvard University. Just four months ago, he successfully defended his second Ph.D, which was in the History of Science at Harvard. In the fall semester of 2011, Dr. Mathew led the freshman seminar “Science, History and Theatre.”
Sitting off to the side in Café Algiers, a cozy, tucked away coffee house on Brattle Street, I looked over my long list of questions once more as I waited for Dr. Mathew to arrive. The atmosphere was warm and inviting that afternoon, a tinge of eager excitement in the air for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “I am Indian. And bespectacled,” described Dr. Mathew in our previous emails. Scanning the café, I saw pockets of Harvard students studying or engaging in a deep discussion. No sign of Dr. Mathew however. I had heard many great stories about Dr. Mathew and was excited to finally chat with him. He was rumored to be a much beloved freshman seminar leader. One of the fall 2011 Elson Family Arts Initiation seminars, “Science, History, and Theatre,” was quickly gaining a reputation for its guest panelists, frequent off-campus field trips, and its professor. When Dr. Mathew walked in to Café Algiers moments later, description or not, I could tell it was him.
Dr. John Mathew was indeed bespectacled. Wearing an olive-green sweatshirt and the biggest grin on his face, he introduced himself and we shuffled upstairs to conduct the interview. Before we had even placed our orders for coffee, Dr. Mathew dived in and began describing his background in the humanities, science, and theater. “I love writing,” he announced to me. “It’s hard work, but I love working with words. But in terms of prose or poetry or plays (I write plays), I’m used to being concise.” That may be the case for his writings, but during our conversation, he was quite the opposite. I could hear the uncontainable excitement behind his thick, British accent as he walked me through every detail of his love affair with the theater, from childhood to now, including the synopses of his award-winning plays. He rarely paused to take a breath. My fingers strained to keep up with typing his responses. Dr. Mathew made his theatrical debut early in life, appearing as an angel in his first play at the age of seven in Libya. Family influence no doubt played a role; his mother and brother were both involved in theater, and as children, he and his sister would listen to their mother reading poetry. His love for acting and plays continued through college, even while he was pursuing a zoology degree in India.
At the age of twenty, Dr. Mathew wrote his first play, titled “Shades of Gray;” all the names of his works contain elements of color. The plot focuses on the conflicts between an Indian man and a Lebanese man sharing quarters in Cambridge. “Shades of Gray” portrays a theme commonly found throughout his subsequent plays: the “forces” of race relations, faith, and religion. Later on in “Pink”, the intricate relationships between a prostitute, a pimp, a Catholic priest, and a blind girl are explored and expounded. “It’s a very strange combo of people,” admitted Dr. Mathew. Similarly, in “Sunset in Purple,” which won the British Broadcasting Corporation award and was broadcasted to a worldwide audience, religious tensions are heightened in two neighboring cemeteries, one Muslim and one Christian. Other plays of his have been produced, like “Searching for Aristotle,” a play adapted from Jorge Luis Borges’ play “Labyrinth,” which seeks to understand Aristotle’s interpretations of tragedy and comedy, a tricky concept in traditional Muslim culture. “Everything is a metaphor,” explains Dr. Mathew. “No human form has ever been painted in strict Muslim art…so instead it would be beautiful flowers, streams, sun, nature. How do you explain tragedy and comedy with metaphors?” Therein lies the challenge. With this as a starting point, Dr. Mathew began writing his play, essentially a spin-off of reality versus fiction, past versus present, and author versus character. Borges, the original author, becomes one of the two main characters and is set to speak off of Avaroes, another primary character, who is anticipating and speaking to a Borges in the eighth century. Dr. Mathew clarifies, “[It’s] a play about a story, involving the story, in which the author of the story is also a character.” For a talk on Islamic studies, there was a stage reading of the play in Cordelia Street Cafe in New York.
Dr. Mathew not only wrote many plays, but he also acted in a few. In his so-called “street plays”, Dr. Mathew and a group of colleagues would simply congregate in the street and act, as if in a lively improv show, with people walking about and without a stage, just pure acting. The various performers would build on their own inspirations and establish their own unique angles. Dr. Mathew shared with me the secrets to his inspiration. In all his works, Dr. Mathew has delved into his personal deep-rooted issues, including his culture, political stance (in 2007, he wrote his angriest play, “States of Yellow”, set one year after 9/11 and six months before the invasion of Iraq), philosophies, or multifaceted education. In his published play, “Though They May Be Red,” Dr. Mathew gleans bits and pieces from his studies of religion, evolutionary biology, social history, and political history. In a mind-bending metaphysical twist, he juxtaposes the dialogue of the spirit of an unborn child with that of the baby’s mother. When asked what inspired his writing, Dr. Mathew responded, “I think in more ways, words come to me…sometimes [the inspirations] are experiences, a spark, some-times a dream, [or] sometimes it’s something I’ve studied—a concept.” The possibilities are endless, and Dr. Mathew lets his mind wander freely. He confided in me one of his latest reflections: “What if we were hermaphrodites?” Well, that would be different. What a strange thing to express through a play! But as Dr. Mathew walked me through his own thinking—how humans could be like earthworms and fertilize mutually—I began to wonder what a world like that would be. If all it took were a few strong individuals fueled by their deep, nagging, intellectual questions to take to the stage, then soon everybody could be thinking. The wheels of influence would start turning, and theater really could prompt action. But Dr. Mathew already knows and believes that. “Theater has such an important role. [It] becomes a window. There are characters…the people deploying it. Their virtues are what makes it interesting [to humans], a fundamentally narcissistic species,” argues Dr. Mathew. “We see elements of our-selves in people we play. That’s how we relate. That’s why the stories are so deep.”
Dr. Mathew applies those same beliefs to his works outside of plays. While traveling through Delhi and Pakistan and working on his research thesis in 2008, he simultaneously cranked out the pages to his prize-winning novel. Everything he saw from his excursions abroad to the many sites he visited were incorporated into the novel. More interestingly, I found the literary professor to have a musical, spontaneous side. Taking a slight break from his innumerable years of academia, Dr. Mathew headed to Madras, where he served as secretary of a sea turtle conservation. His job there could not have been more different from his play-writing career. The conservation group protected an endangered species of sea turtles called Olive Ridley. These turtles lay around 150 eggs, only one of which survives. The rest either die or are poached, so until three or four every morning, Dr. Mathew and a group of his colleagues took the bus up to the beach to ensure the safety of the eggs. Covering a stretch of kilometers, the group searched and collected eggs from the sand, brought them to the hatchery where the turtles would be raised, and then released them out to sea. That wasn’t it though. “We would sing a lot,” said Dr. Mathew. “One of my friends decided one night that maybe we should write a musical for people who would not know or would not immediately know [about Olive Ridley]…we hoped to bring together the community.” What was said was done. They sat down and churned out a musical, “Olive.” “It’s a snatch of music, and I put words to it.” Despite being Dr. Mathew’s first musical, “Olive” turned out to be shockingly successful. There were about four people in the cast, and over 4000 people came to watch at the music academy. It soon became a collegiate-wide musical. Since then, he has written one more musical, “B Minor Blue.”
Dr. Mathew writes in order to more deeply understand the complexities of his studies. He writes to spread aware-ness of cultural, environmental, and religious issues. He writes to employ theater as a form of communication. He writes to touch the lives of people. It seems like Dr. Mathew has never stopped writing, never put down the pencil, never put aside his thoughts. Indeed, with his many years of education and multiple degrees, he has never stopped learning. “I never left school,” chuckled Dr. Mathew. But lately, with his same passion for service and enlightening the younger generation, Dr. Mathew has taken on a new role in education—that of the teacher. He cofounded Boston’s South Asian American Theater (SAATH), served as a teaching fellow at Harvard, Tufts, and MIT, leading courses concerning topics from epidemics to dinosaurs, and most recently, taught his first freshmen seminar, “Science, History, and Theatre” at Harvard. I had heard a lot about the seminar even before the interview. As any college student can attest to, there are four main questions asked when students first introduce themselves to each other: “What’s your name,” “Where are you from/living,” “What’s your concentration,” and “What classes are you taking?” Although the same four (debatably) truthful answers are too often perfunctorily dished out, certain exceptional courses sometimes capture our attention.Dr. Mathew’s freshmen seminar was one of those. With a remarkable lineup of theatrical pieces such as “Angels in America,” “Proof,” and “La Boheme,” and a chance to person-ally meet and perform for the very playwrights and actors they had been studying, the students shared glowing remarks and “smashing” anecdotes. Dr. Mathew was equally excited about his “dream course”, walking me through his seminar syllabus and outlining the play summaries. “I’m very surprised that Harvard has never done this before.” As a professor of one of the fall 2011 Elson Family Arts Initiation seminars, Dr. Mathew explores the relationship between science, medicine, mathematical phenomena, history of diseases, and social justice through the commentaries, analyses, and portrayals in theater. For example, “Miss Evers’ Boys’” centers around syphilis, “Angels in America” is set during a time of AIDS, and “Wit” deals with cancer. The students went to Olin College to see “Proof,” about a mathematical discovery, learned how the stage and choreography were arranged around physics and force fields in “Copenhagen,” and even had the opportunity to act out “Rasmus in Chains,” an unpublished play about the death of Tycho Brahe, for the playwright himself. “You leave feeling intelligent,” said Dr. Mathew. “That’s what theater does instead of droning on in class at 2 pm when students are ready to be sleeping.” From the daily meetups to watch a performance of “Rent” or analyze “Moulin Rouge,” to the random outbreak of a capella after a Monday night class, the spontaneous activities of students in the seminar made them sound like a motley bunch of artists and natural-born musicians. That was not the case at all. While a few out of the fifteen had prior theater experience, the majority were simply a diverse group of freshmen drawn together by the same passion for the interdisciplinary approach to the arts. That’s what Dr.
Mathew wanted to offer through his philosophy of a “guided democracy.” “I tell them: use your creativity and figure things out, and I’m here to help you but you’re responsible. Let’s do this together.” Much of what Dr. Mathew envisioned involved the students bringing together their own unique talents for a final seminar collaboration, writing and performing an original 40-50 minute play. The tasks were divided among the fifteen people, some of whom took on roles as actors, director, script writer, researchers, and stage technicians. Dr. Mathew only gave one direction: to construct the plot line around the lives of those buried in Mt. Auburn cemetery, many of whom were famous scientists, artists, painters, and songwriters. Dr. Mathew frequently reminded all his students: “You can’t sit and criticize stuff until you actually do it.” Finally, on December 2nd, the “Science, History, and Theatre” seminar class performed their play in a chapel in Mt. Auburn cemetery.
Although the fall seminar ended, Dr. Mathew is far from ready to leave theater and education. With degrees in zoology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, history of science, and an extensive knowledge of theater, he certainly has a lot of options. After we wrapped up the interview, Dr. Mathew and I passed by Brattle Theater on our way back to campus, and he handed me a schedule of the shows within the next month. I then realized that as the hour flew by, we still had never ordered our coffees.