TheatreFIRST’s ‘HeLa’ honors legacy of medical heroine, mother Henrietta Lacks

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In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of ovarian cancer and her cells were taken without her consent. Today, TheatreFIRST is giving visibility to Henrietta’s story with an original play co-written by Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy.

TheatreFIRST is a local theater company in Berkeley that aims to highlight marginalized voices and bring communities together through theater. The last show of their season, entitled “HeLa,” centers on the story of Henrietta Lacks.

In the decades since Lacks’ death, her infinitely replicating (also known as “immortal”) cells have travelled to space and provided cures for diseases like polio and treatments for conditions such as ovarian cancer — the very thing that killed Lacks. What’s more, Henrietta’s family continued to live in poverty as doctors made fortunes off of her cells. The label “HeLa” severed Henrietta’s name and identity from the cells themselves, as they continued to grow and become an international resource for scientific and medical research. Because of this, Henrietta’s identity has only recently received recognition.

“We’re in a period of time in history where health insurance is being looked at as something that is a privilege, and it’s being taken away from people who really need it,” says actress Jeunée Simon, who plays Henrietta in “HeLa.”

“I think this is something that is called out during the show,” says Simon, “There’s even a line that says: ‘You don’t have many options because you’re poor, because you’re a woman, because you’re Black.’ This was in the fifties and I think (in) 2017, we should be so far past that.”

Stephanie Anne Johnson, TheatreFIRST board member and lighting director for “HeLa,” says that the show is intended to create a community of people who want to talk about Henrietta and other systemic injustices, while recognizing the ongoing effects of Henrietta’s incredible sacrifice.

Johnson has personal experience with Henrietta’s impact: she’s an ovarian cancer survivor.

“I felt something that didn’t feel right,” says Johnson, “very similar to Henrietta.” She says early detection with ovarian cancer is rare — it’s usually found around stage three or four.

“They call it the silent killer,” she says.

Johnson has been a lighting designer for more than four decades, so at first she approached “HeLa” the same way she would have approached any other story. “I didn’t really think about myself,” she said, “and then I saw the play on stage and it hit me: Oh my god, I am part of this story … and after that, it was quite emotional and evocative.”

For Johnson, Henrietta’s story brings together the “unbridled capitalist paradigms” with the “racist, sexist and classist assumptions” that prevent people from being treated equally and fairly in the medical system.

“Those kind of injustices exist in all corners of this culture,” said Johnson. She takes it upon herself as a board member of TheatreFIRST and an educator to inform people of such injustices.

“I know what (Henrietta) went through,” says Johnson, “so her story makes me tremendously angry, because it’s still going on with this assault on the Affordable Care Act.”

On opening night, Johnson introduced the show by reiterating TheatreFIRST’s mission of activism and Henrietta’s influence on healthcare. “It’s critical that we are mindful of and advocate for healthcare for everyone.”

Beyond institutional barriers to healthcare access that disproportionately target low-income communities, “HeLa” also draws attention to issues of consent and ethics in research and medicine. The play itself cyclically reiterates the innumerable studies that have been advanced by Henrietta’s cells.

“So many medical discoveries rely on HeLa cells. Chemotherapy drugs, HIV drugs, vaccines, etc. have come for using her cells,” said co-playwright Geetha Reddy in an email, “Her story has raised and continues to raise awareness around issues of consent and compensation for patients who participate in medical studies.”

“Modern medicine would not be modern without Henrietta Lacks,” said co-playwright Lauren Gunderson in an email.

The theme of ancestral lineage is inextricably linked to Henrietta’s story — beginning with the intimate bond between Henrietta and her daughter. Their maternal relationship is transcendent, extending from Henrietta’s spirit after her death and enveloping her daughter’s life with love.

Deborah, portrayed by Desiree Rogers, experiences lifelong grief for the loss of her mother, which ultimately leads her to pursue her mother’s story. Without her, Henrietta’s experiences may never have come to light.

“Sometimes we’ll have an audience that has no idea who Henrietta Lacks is,” says Rogers, “I have a friend who (is a neuroscientist), and she worked with the HeLa cells for 15 years and had no idea who Henrietta Lacks was … so there (are) a lot of people who are in that field, who work in labs and don’t know — so the general public, we definitely don’t know these things.”

For Rogers, there’s a certain power in knowing how Henrietta is continuing to change the world for the better. “HeLa” provides invaluable visibility for Henrietta’s story that now allows for the world to learn from her experiences.

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

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