THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, THEATRE FIRST KEEPS HER SPIRIT ALIVE
WITH AN EXCELLENT NEW PLAY ‘HELA’
Berkeley's prestigious Theatre FIRST closes out their first critically acclaimed season with a story that is still alive today. The world premiere of “HeLa” Lauren Gunderson’s and Geetha Reddy’s play about the amazing life of Henrietta Lacks is now on the Live Oak stage through June 17th. Directed by the polished Evren Odcikin and dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins. They have cast an able company of players to bring this true story to the Live Oak stage in Berkeley. “HeLa” explores the story of Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose hard life and young death, produced the most powerful line of immortal cells the world has ever seen. Known as the HeLa cells, they became the first to live outside the body in a glass tube and subsequently the most widely used human cells in scientific research.
Author Rebecca Skloot told Lacks’ story in a nonfiction book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. The book became a publishing phenomenon that Oprah Winfrey produced a movie adaptation for HBO that is currently now airing. The story of Henrietta Lacks is too big to be compressed into 70 minutes but this new original play keeps all the power and racist history. It educates us in the disappointment of some forms of medical history, but also is clear how this woman has become immortal.
For decades history did not mention the origin of the famous HeLa cancer cells that helped cure polio, and still are used for AIDS research and, of course, continuing the battle to cure cancer. It was only recently learned that the cells that have generated 20 tons of new cells for research. These were the same cells taken without the consent from the terminally ill Henrietta Lacks. What happened to Henrietta, and those in her family, is disgraceful, and at times painfully, dramatic. Lacks was a 31-year-old African American woman who was descended from slaves. She died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951.
“Hela” focuses on the relationship between Henrietta played by the compelling Junee Simon and Lacks' daughter, Deborah, played by the exceptional Desiree Roger. While most of her family resent never having made a profit off the HeLa cells, Deborah's feelings are more tortured and personal and Gunderson’s and Reddy’s script deals with that. The poignant Roger’s throws herself into the role of Deborah, unhesitatingly showing the fear, hope and hunger for connection that makes Deborah by far the most compelling character.
As you enter the Theatre First space you feel the huge presence of “Hela” and the important set designed by Bailey Hikawa. The eye catching mountain of glowing cells made to look like a seascape of bubbles and light bulbs glows with life and looming color. It becomes a character in this one act play. Hikawa’s design works and bonds with lighting designer Stephanie Anne Johnson’s texture of color from the universe of cells, as each new color sets the mood of the pain and new life on stage. The two playwrights take the focus off the cells and shine the energy on Henrietta Lacks
Evren Odcikin’s direction is clever and his fine cast that play many parts of Lacks’ life include the dapper Khary Moye, who plays her husband Day, who had no clue his wife's cells were been taken without her permission. Odcikin keeps his cast busy on the small stage, the painful scene of Lacks’ illness is staged well with Devon Labelle’s simple props of sheets, glass vials and a doctor's clipboard. As years move by the accomplishments achieved by Henrietta and the HeLa cells are impressive. The history is presented in subtext by the use of a sputnik orbiting Russian dog and other creative storytelling .The humorous Sarah Mitchell and Akemi Okamura fill in for the many nurses and scientists, but the most entertaining is Sveltka the Russian astronaut Dog winsomely played by Mitchell. The splendid Richard Pallaziol plays one of the main doctors who steals the Hela cells without her consent. Odcikin brings his actors a human touch and makes them very relatable; the relationship between Moye and Simon as husband and wife is loving and caring. Rogers is powerful as the daughter discovering the amazing gift her mother has given the medical world.
Henrietta has lived on and she still is alive today in labs all over the world. Yet sadly, without her knowledge or consent, doctors harvested her cells. Those cells were cultured and reproduced for over six decades. The first time human cells had done that. The HeLa cells represented a breakthrough whose impact can't be overstated. But “HeLa” also is the right and wrong done to the Lacks’ family for the scientific good.
Theatre First has just ended a first rate season and is a welcome theatre company to the Live Oak stage in North Berkeley. Now rivaling the quality of the Shotgun and Aurora Theatre company's, T1 has reclaimed the Live Oak Theater as one of the East Bay’s cultural mainstays. Congratulations to Creative Director Jon Tracy and his creative team. Season 2017 - 18 is about to announced with all new work from some of the best Bay Area local writers and directors.
Theatre FIRST Presents
Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy.
Lisa Marie Rollins.
Through June 17th
One hour, 15 minutes
Live Oak Theater,
1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.
Photos by Cheshire Isaacs
HELA By Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy Dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins Directed by Evren Odcikin
CAST JEUNÉE SIMON, Henrietta DESIREE ROGERS, Deborah KHARY MOYE, Ensemble SARAH MITCHELL, Ensemble AKEMI OKAMURA, Ensemble RICHARD PALLAZIOL, Ensemble