TheatreFIRST’s ‘HeLa’ is force of nature, just like Henrietta Lacks herself

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Cheshire Isaacs / TheatreFirst/Courtesy

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If there’s a play to see this year in this political climate, it’s TheatreFIRST’s original production of “HeLa.”

“HeLa” has an inherent communal energy cultivated by the immersive architecture of the stage and TheatreFIRST’s mission of art-centric activism. This not only sets the intimate tone of the show, but also demonstrates the incomparable value of local theater. At smaller shows written and featuring performances by Bay Area artists, one can see the direct impact that theater has on the community.

This is particularly poignant with the story of Henrietta Lacks, a low-income Black woman whose cells were taken for research without her knowledge or consent in 1951 while she was receiving treatment for ovarian cancer.

“HeLa” begins by introducing a theme that seeps into every corner of Henrietta’s story: we all have memories that aren’t ours, collective understandings that inform our identities and guide the ways in which we experience the world. It’s ancestral memory, generational trauma. For Henrietta, it’s the love she feels for her family. Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, was only two years old when her mother died, which makes the way that “HeLa” foregrounds their transcendent bond that much more powerful.

Everything about “HeLa” is minimalistic — the set is a simple symbolic homage to Henrietta’s cells, the cast is a mere six actors — which contributes to the immense weight of the story’s impact. Such minimalism requires a certain level of imagination from the audience that many large-scale plays do not, but this works to brilliant creative ends.

For example, an ensemble cast of so few actors evokes a sense of culpability. The same actors who portray the scientists manipulating Henrietta and coercing her family also play the dog with which HeLa cells were sent to space and the doctors who coldly treated her cancer. “HeLa” holds all those involved accountable, and that message is carried by the fact that the same faces — and by extension, the same injustices — are repeated again and again.

“HeLa” speaks to several multidimensional truths, but most of all, it speaks truth to power. Actors repeat the phrase “take, take, take” to remind the audience just how much was taken from Henrietta — her identity, her family, her cells, herself. It also reminds us of the many ways that Western, particularly American, cultures have taken from people of color, women and low-income folks.

As the play poignantly exclaims, “We are living a history of taking.”

And later, “You don’t get to take any more.”

This play is deeply emotional, yet these artists found balance between searing honesty and cathartic humor. Fierce punchlines at the expense of those responsible work alongside moments of wholesome familial laughter.

“HeLa” recognizes the continuing relevance of Henrietta’s story. Though she died of ovarian cancer in 1951, her cells continue to proliferate medical research — she’s still saving lives. She was born in the 1920s, but because of her cells, and because of her legacy, Henrietta’s story continues still today. In fact, it was only less than ten years ago that the world was really made aware of Henrietta’s prolific story.

Desiree Rogers, who plays Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, said in an interview with The Daily Californian that she wished she had learned about Henrietta as a child, particularly when African Americans’ contributions to American culture were trivialized. “If I had known about her as a young person (growing) up, my confidence would have been so much better, my self-esteem would have been so much better to know about this African-American woman’s contribution.”

Many people still don’t know the name Henrietta Lacks — even if their family was saved by the polio vaccination, their children were delivered by C-section or they know someone who has received chemotherapy, all of which are possible because of Henrietta’s cells. “HeLa” is reminding us that we must say Henrietta’s name; we as communities must continue to tell her story.

Henrietta cannot be erased. We cannot allow her to fade into the background after reading about her or after seeing Oprah’s movie.

“HeLa” places its audience at the intersection of unconditional love and recognition of tremendous injustice. Both are integral to recovery, just as both are integral to revolution.

Like the continuing process of reconstructing Henrietta’s history, “HeLa” is in constant development — one can use their ticket for one show to return and see “HeLa” grow over time.

“HeLa” provides a forum for healing, for action and for revolution. Within that vein, the show creates a space that encourages conversations regarding personal experiences and institutional repercussions. “HeLa” makes Henrietta and the extreme injustices against her absolutely unforgettable.

“HeLa” will be running through June 17 at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].

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