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  WINDY CITY TIMES

HeLa
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-12-04

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Playwright: J. Nicole Brooks

At: Sideshow Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; GreenhouseTheater.org; $30. Runs through: Dec. 23

HeLa juxtaposes three storylines linked only abstractly. Each one contains fine scenes that display the skill of J. Nicole Brooks, who benefits as a playwright from her experience as an actor. Collectively, however, HeLa is an odd duck.

Story One presents the cancer-related death of an unnamed Black woman in mid-20th-century Baltimore. Story Two presents a Black 1980s 9-year-old Chicagoan, nurtured by her uncle and cousin, who dreams of becoming an astronaut or cosmologist. Story Three features two once-earthly beings, now adrift yet alive in space—one a Black woman and the other David Bowie's Major Tom. The stories intercut with each other as actors double or triple in various roles.

Only by reading an article in the program did I understand that the dying woman was Henrietta Lacks ( 1920-1951 ), whose biopsied tumor tissues were cultivated into HeLa—the first human cell line to achieve scientific immortality. HeLa cells still are extensively used for medical research and were used by NASA for outer-space experiments, the article noted.

This helped me make abstract connections between the stories: how the dying Black woman unknowingly became part of the inspiration for the young Black girl; how the woman's literal physical essence—shot into space—gave rise to the surreal Black space entity, who offers sage but emotional commentary on our world; how the stars and heavens inspire and connect mere human mortals.

Many may be familiar with Lacks and HeLa—as I was not—via a 2010 book by Rebecca Skloots and a 2017 TV film with Oprah Winfrey. Such informed viewers may plug into this play immediately. But—and it's a big "but"—audience members should not have to read the program for sufficient context to make sense of the juggled stories. If I'd not read the article, I would have been lost and, therefore, uninterested and dismissive of HeLa. This is a serious dramaturgical problem. A play needn't be literal or realistic, but its context must be self-apparent to viewers.

Still, there are precious and heartfelt moments throughout that are beautifully written, directed ( by Jonathan L. Green ) and played: a scene of charm yet pain between Henrietta and an affable fellow patient, a marriage proposal during a total eclipse, a man tenderly mourning his wife, a poetic meeting of space entities momentarily breaking their loneliness, a closing celebration of achievement. The fine cast includes Deanna Reed-Foster, Matt Fletcher, Aya Sol Masai Hall ( Little Girl ), David Hamilton, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Ann James and Carolyn Nelson—all in multiple roles, except Hall.

A stage-wide wall of institutional green tiles dominates Yu Shibagaki's set, which Simean Carpenter's fluorescent and industrial lighting doesn't warm. The effect is efficient, but cold.


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