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Adura Onashile in HeLa

With the rare exception of Archimedes streaking naked down the streets shouting ‘eureka!’ or images spawned from the imagination of Mary Shelley and other creators of the un/near/former-dead, scientific discovery is not often thought of as a space for high drama. Yet, HeLa, a one woman play based on the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lax, explores the taut, if understated drama between ethics, race and scientific discovery.

HeLa is the story of Henrietta Lax the African American woman whose cells were used to create the immortal cell line HeLa. The cells had been culled from her body in 1920  without her consent, and though they went on to be used in numerous significant bio-medical discoveries, including vaccines for polio and cervical cancer (the disease which claimed Henrietta at 31 years old), her own family was barely able to afford health care.

A litany of cells experimented on before HeLa proved successfulNigerian/Scottish actress Adura Onashile, who also wrote the piece, delivers a wonderful performance. Along with that of Henrietta’s, Onashile tells the story from the perspectives of members of Henrietta’s family as well as the nurse who harvested the sample of tissue from Herietta’s abdomen. Other than getting their place on the chalkboard which forms a wall of fame/shame, the string of male doctors and scientists who have gained accolades and awards from the results of their experimentation on Henrietta’s cells get no part of this story.

Directed by Graham Eatough, HeLa uses an admirable interplay of performance, sound design (Danny Krass) and video (Mette Hunnman). The action is punctuated by Onashile writhing on a gurney as though being zapped by a defibrillator which forms a sort of chorus of movement. The segment is wonderfully choreographed and Onashile’s physical control and grace of movement as she contorts to reflect the pain of electricity coursing through her body is fantastic. This ‘chorus’ evolves as the play goes on, reflecting the idea of the multiple invasions science has made on Henrietta’s body and that because of this she cannot find rest, an idea that recurs throughout the piece.

HeLa is part documentary, part drama and it finds a great balance between the two, providing the audience with sufficient information without weighing down the story too much. It puts Henrietta’s tale in the line of medical injustices to poor African Americans who were used as guinea pigs for experimentation.

Onashile tries to uncover the woman behind the four letters whose cells have given so much to the world. Yet despite the energy with which she tries to portray the slivers of information which they have on her, it is startlingly clear that a lot remains unknown about her. 

HeLa is certainly a story worth telling and worth hearing, because scientific discovery has a grimy underbelly that is often brought to light and is is a well crafted and executed play. Yet, even so, the weekend performance of HeLa, left me less than whelmed.  

HeLa was held at the Vera Moody Auditorium, School of Music, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, May 16 - 18, 2014 as a benefit for the Jamaica Cancer Society.