This is a play concerned with segregation in 1950s America, racism, and the rights to one’s own body in medical studies. A one-woman show performed and written by Adura Onashile, the play is a haunting and often heart-breaking story of black American woman Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in the early 1950s. While undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, her doctor took samples of her cancer tissue and healthy tissue without asking her permission. The cells taken were the first to survive outside a living host. The quickly multiplying cells, referred to as ‘HeLa’ after the patient they came from, have been used to test and study medical treatment around the world ever since. Today, HeLa cells are in ninety percent of labs worldwide and have been used for a huge variety of medical research, from the development vaccines and AIDS treatment, to gene research and the mapping of the human genome.
HeLa outlined the growth and success of the cells in the medical world juxtaposed against the often unheard story of Henrietta Lacks. The woman died while her children were still young, and they were left not knowing much about her. Onashile portrays every character in Lacks’ life: her husband, her grown up children, the doctor’s assistant who originally took her cells. Each character talks about what a great woman Henrietta was and how many astounding things have been accomplished with her cells. Onashile kept a running tally of scientists who had earned prizes and honours because of work done with HeLa cells. But throughout the play the audience had an acute awareness of the absence of the voice of Henrietta herself.
At times filling the audience with extreme pride for accomplishing so much in sixty years with HeLa cells, and at times with extreme shame for the way racism neglected the human rights of so many, HeLa is intensely moving. Onashile’s performance is captivating; her seamless movement between characters and sombre acting makes the play beautiful and horrifying, leaving one questioning the progress of human achievement.