By Charly Evon Simpson; Directed by Colette Robert
Produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 2.3.19
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street
by Asya Gorovits on 1.19.18
Cristina Pitter, Naomi Lorrain, and Nia Calloway in Behind the Sheet. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
BOTTOM LINE: Charly Evon Simpson exposes the origins of modern gynecology in her play honoring enslaved women used as medical research subjects.
On the opening night of the new play Behind the Sheet, after the cast received a well-deserved standing ovation, the actors signaled us to quiet down. In an epilogue, they tell us that Dr. George Barry, one of the characters in the play that we just saw, is based on a real historical figure, J. Marion Sims. In 1840s Alabama he performed medical experiments on some eleven enslaved black women, looking for a cure for post-childbirth fistulas. Dr. Sims eventually became known as the "father of modern gynecology," with a statue erected in New York's Central Park (later moved to Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, where he is buried). But no statues commemorate the women whose bodies were used in multiple experimental surgical procedures without their consent. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson has attempted to correct that injustice.
Produced by the EST/Sloan Science & Technology Project, Behind the Sheet is a double-punch in the gut, equally disturbing as an account of medical history and a portrait of life on antebellum Southern plantation. Colette Robert subtly directs a production characterized by earth tones and bathed in warm light. Considering its gruesome subject, the show is surprisingly gentle and easy on the audience’s psyche. Eschewing visual shocks and focusing on human connection, Robert does justice to Simpson’s play and leaves a lot of room for the actors to shine.
The fictional George (Joel Ripka), a failed physician, is onto a new ambitious mission. He wants to figure out the way to close an obstetric fistula, a condition that can occur after a difficult childbirth, causing uncontrollable urine and fecal leakage. Infections, painful inflammations and stigma due to strong odors plague women with this condition (white and black) for the rest of their lives; in addition, it makes slave women a highly inefficient workforce. Dr. George acquires a few of these women in order to perform his research.
Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), a calm, quick-witted and very pregnant enslaved woman, assists the doctor. At first, her calm demeanor, and the enthusiasm of the doctor, showing the tools of his invention to the neighboring plantation owner, are somewhat reassuring. But soon enough this medical practice reveals its rotten core. George sees his patients as his property (and legally speaking, they are), using them basically as living mannequins. He implies that due to their race they are naturally more tolerant to pain and don’t need anesthetic; moreover, he believes that post-surgical pain relief (courtesy of opium) only causes distress in women. Away from their families and in pain, the "patients" can only rely on each other, but even that is made difficult because life has scarred them too many times.
The scenes between women simply talking are the most successful—even more gripping than a forceful kiss, an invasive medical exam, attending the plantation mistress and other instances of abuse that make us hold our breaths in the audience. Their conversations about their pasts, their everyday worries and their future hopes are filled with pain, poise, and sass when you least expect it, allowing us to exhale with relief. Betty (Nia Calloway), Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), Sally (Cristina Pitter), Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams) and Dinah (Jehan O. Young) stand strong despite their miserable condition, even when their voluptuous skirts (designed by costumer Sarah Woodham) are stained with their own and each others' blood.
After the curtain call, the five actresses remained standing on the Curt Dempster Theatre's small stage as monuments for the enslaved women, who never received any credit for their contribution to science. Audience members were standing as one, some wiping tears from their faces. Those few brief moments in silence before the lights went out felt sacramental and righteous. And although the horrors of the history of medicine haunted me for quite a long time after seeing Behind the Sheet, I felt order was restored, the heroines too long in the shadows honored.
(Behind the Sheet plays at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, through February 3, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7; Wednesdays through Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 2 and 7; and Sundays at 5. Tickets are $30, $25 for students and seniors, and are available at ensemblestudiotheatre.org.)
Behind the Sheet is by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert. Part of the EST/Sloan Science & Technology Project. Set Design by Caitlyn Murphy. Costume Design by Sarah Woodham. Lighting Design by Adam Honoré. Sound Design by Fan Zhang. Stage Manager is Fran Acuña-Almiron.
The cast is Stephen James Anthony, Nia Calloway, Naomi Lorrain, Cristina Pitter, Shawn Randall, Joel Ripka, Megan Tusing, Amber Reauchean Williams, and Jehan O. Young.