“PAINTED RED” With Black Blood

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There’s an off-Broadway play I saw a few weeks ago that’s still building a huge after-buzz and needs to make a quick return at some theater in New York City.

“Painted Red” is a play created, directed and produced by Cynthia Stephens.  It tells the tragic true-life story of Henrietta Lacks.

She was a poor Black woman who became ill and sought treatment from, at that time, a little known Baltimore hospital, John Hopkins.  While treating Henrietta for cervical cancer, it was discovered that her cells had the unique ability for replication. Without her knowledge or permission, the medical industry experimented with her cells, made great scientific advancements and huge amounts of money.

After this ground breaking discovery, the story unfolds.

In the play, through a series of rapid scenery changes, we get to know and like Henrietta. Portrayed by Tara Taylor, there is a striking resemblance to the actual Henrietta Lacks.  Both are demure beauties.  Henrietta is an endearing young mother of five, coping with her illness as best she could with limited resources, without entirely understanding the severity of her condition.  Her main concern was her ability to have more children following radiation treatments.

We are drawn back in the play to the era when racial bigotry towards “Negroes” to use the terminology of the day, was much uglier than anything we see today.

In the early 1950’s open segregation was still the order of the day – separate hospital wards for Blacks, and even separate blood banks for Whites and Blacks.  We see a team of doctors discussing the thousands of Black children “available” for testing the experimental Salk polio vaccine.  Another team of Jewish doctors meet and discuss injection of experimental cancer cells on Jewish patients. This suggestion is quickly scraped.   

At one point, when a team of doctors is told that the “Hela” cells come from Negroes, the entire team walks out of the meeting, only to return when the “positive” magnitude of the discovery sets in.

The interaction between the characters is more than believable, especially for people who may have lived during that period. The characters are multi-dimensional – there is no Black or White, only grays; and that’s a great accomplishment by the play’s creator and the performers.

For instance, when we are first introduced to the White news anchorman, Philip Riebeck, skillfully portrayed by Michael Broadhurst, he has a superior air and dismissive attitude when encountering the Black janitor, Paul Henry, portrayed by Deaon Griffin-Pressley. There was an incident where the anchorman, having left for the day, returned to his office and caught the janitor sitting at his desk, doing a great job of mocking the anchorman’s contrived mannerisms.

He could have had the Black janitor terminated.  But instead of the anchorman becoming angry, we see a flicker of respect in his eyes as he decides to actually talk to the janitor and not “at” him.  We see the evolution of some affinity, even while they acknowledge a society strictly defined by race.  Years later, the anchorman and janitor-now-turned-doctor, meet to have lunch.

While the thrust of the play is on the exploitation of Henrietta’s cells, the destruction of her family after her death is dramatically shown through the superb acting of Jamyl Dobson, playing Henrietta’s son, Zakariyya Lacks. After Henrietta’s death, Zakariyya became a child abuse victim. This abuse affected him well into adulthood.  He is the only sibling vocal about his opposition to the doctors and scientists stealing Henrietta’s cells, and reaping enormous profits.

The role of daughters Elsie and Deborah is played by Tiffany Nichole Greene.  The younger daughter was an infant when Henrietta died.  She desperately wants to know anything she can about her mother, and is the uniting force attempting to hold the family together.

The background music adds a level of reality to the period, along with the authentic clothing and props.  We hear classics from the 50’s like “Earth Angel” and “Love Portion No. 9”.  Henrietta’s aunt is adorned in an authentic foxtail wrap, while one of the men wore brown and white speck shoes.  Through the years, the clothing and the music moves forward with the advancing years.

This is a great play.  It definitely should be made available as a long-running off-Broadway production where many show audiences often search for authentic and educational productions, videotaped and placed in schools and libraries.  It would be a giant step in the right direction to correct a social and ethical injustice of the past, while honoring a woman who gave so much and received so very little in return.

Two Thumbs Up!  Look forward to the next run of Painted Red”.



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