Yesterday I was invited to a theater production titled All That Lives by Tatty Hennessy. It is part of the Ovalhouse series, First Bites, where they have a few showings of new works-in-development in order to gain feedback and decide whether and how they will support these productions in future seasons.
All That Lives is about the story of Henrietta Lacks, and in the writer’s/director’s words “a true story of immortality, exploitation and what rights we have over our bodies when we die.” If you don’t know the story of Henrietta Lacks, you won’t leave this piece knowing much more either.
The production opens in a way that is engaging, with Kayla Meikle center stage. Meikle plays both Henrietta and a British woman named Gen, who is presumably in modern-day UK and also terminally ill. Her face reveals both intense physical pain as well as an emotional suffering that must be minimized for the sake of survival. The acting is solid, although most of the cast really struggle with sticking what is meant to be a ‘generic’ southern accent. I’m from the southeastern United States, and I have yet to hear a convincing accent on a London stage. But if West End can’t get it right in a major production like Memphis, I certainly will not fault a small production like this one for trying.
It did not take long to recognize, however, that the majority of the cast was white, and those white characters were there to tell the stories of Blacks. And so the cycle continues. More dialogue was spent arguing the case for white medical practitioners: either in showing that their immoral actions did lead to some good or developing their personal backstories that were seemingly meant to induce sympathy. Give the audience some credit and trust that they can make that call without the obvious nudge.
Some directorial choices are also questionable. Why is the actor who plays Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, the same person who plays Peter, a member of the legal team at the modern-day medical research firm that is using the same dubious tactics to harvest cells from unknowing minority patients? Is it the desire to abate the role that race played and continues to play in the healthcare system? Why does the actor who plays George Gey, the scientist who successfully developed the HeLa cell line, also play John, the boyfriend of Gen’s daughter, Natasha? Why is it that Gen and John share a bonding moment, but Gen and Natasha never have the stage to themselves, never have the opportunity for intimate mother-daughter connection and end their shared time in conflict?
It isn’t until the final scene of the piece that the audience gets to meet Henrietta, as a person loved and in love, rather than the de-humanized Henrietta – the patient, corpse, or cells. This comes much too late.
In summary, this piece misses the opportunity to tell a Black woman’s story and is instead complicit to Black women’s invisibility.
If you are interested to learn more about Lacks, NPR did a piece on her a few years back, and there is also a NYT bestselling book that details the complexity of the intersections of medicine, ethics and race as well as the wrongdoing Lacks’ family has endured.
In the First Bites series the show will run through Saturday, 24 October, always at 7:45pm.