HeLa at Summerhall

I first heard about the possibility of HeLa, an examination of the story of Henrietta Lacks and her medical and scientific legacy when I met Adura Onashile a couple of years ago when we were both spending time at Cove Park.  Adura had come to start work on the preliminary research for a theatrical piece which she would both write and perform.

I was therefore very excited to be in the audience to see the show that has been worked on and honed over the intervening months.  Previously performed as a work in progress at the Science Festival, it has been refashioned to fit into the former Anatomy lecture theatre in what used to be the veterinary college and which is now Summerhall arts venue.

In fact, I was even rather anxious on my way to see it on Saturday evening; I know how much work has gone into it, I wanted it to be perfect and successful.  We arrived so early we had our choice of seats in the steeply raked seats looking in and down onto the performance area.  I wanted the perfect view, but I didn’t want to put her off(!)

HeLa is a one woman show, inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cancer in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951.  When her doctor examined her, when she went in for treatment for a pain in the abdomen, he removed some of her tissue without her permission, and this tissue has provided the raw genetic material for thousands of scientific and medical experiments in the decades since. Eminent scientists have used the cells in work which has led to Nobel Prizes and public recognition.

The cell line, referred to as HeLa, from the first two letters of her first name and surname, have a remarkable property that not only can they survive outside the body, but they continue to multiply, and can in effect be manufactured as infinitum.

It was only in the 1970s when a researcher approached the Lacks family to test to see if this characteristic had been inherited by any of her four children who were all very young when she died ,that they knew anything about the use of their mother’s tissue.  Subsequently the genome of the HeLa cell line was sequenced and published online, violating the privacy of her surviving descendants.

I think what may have initially sparked Adura’s interest in the story of Henrietta was a feeling of outrage, that something had been taken from a poor black woman in a segregated hospital without her permission, that it had been endlessly replicated without the knowledge of her family, that they were all treated as something less than deserving of respect.  But what has emerged is not an anti science play, it is, I think, a very serious attempt to examine what we might mean by life and identity, and scientific responsibility.

Through the eyes of Deborah one of her daughters, we face the question of what it must be like to know that something of your mother still has life, is still growing and replicating, when you lost that person when you were almost too young to remember her.  To a scientist a replicating cell may not be ‘alive’, but to a daughter it must feel like a ghostly presence that might reappear at any time, so why not buy a Mothers’ Day card every year, and wonder if you might ever know what her favourite colour was, or if she might recapture the smell of her? To a scientist they are just cells for experimentation, to the family they are part of a person that they would like to be acknowledged.

On her own, in the middle of the room, with only a medical trolley, a few wooden stools, a box of memories, a video projection and her own tremendous physicality, energy and nuanced performance, Adura creates a world of characters, and asks us to consider the woman, Henrietta Lacks, and her legacy.  It’s thought provoking and raises big questions we should all debate, but it is also the re-imagined story of a woman and the impact her early death had on her family.

Go and see it!

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  1. An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 2 | Reading and Writing

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