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Behind the Sheet
by Charly Evon Simpson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 18, 2022

Jeff Cummings, Chinna Palmer
Photo: The Black Rep

Behind the Sheet is an intense drama about an aspect of history that has been often overlooked over the years. While much has been written about the horrors and brutality of slavery, the role of enslaved people as subjects of medical experimentation isn’t as known as it could be. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson’s play is a fictional story, but it’s inspired by actual events, and embellished in a way that sheds further light on the reality of the experience of slavery in America from the point of view of the enslaved women themselves, as they serve as test subjects for an ambitious white surgeon who views them more as a means to an end than as actual human beings. In fact, it’s the human experience of these women, even in the midst of the brutality, that shines through most of all in this play, compellingly staged by the Black Rep at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre.

The story, based on the work of Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims in 19th Century Alabama, focuses on a group of enslaved Black women who are suffering from fistula, which is a painful and chronic complication of long labors in childbirth. As the play begins, a new patient, Dinah (Patience Davis) arrives from another plantation, and the doctor in charge, George (Jeff Cummings) buys her from the plantation owner so that he can keep her at his own plantation and work on trying to develop a surgical procedure for repairing the fistula. Dinah joins the established patients Sally (Christina Yancy) and Mary (Taijha Silas), who have already endured several surgeries each, as the increasingly obsessed George works to discover the proper procedure, meanwhile not giving them any pain relief during surgery despite learning about the use of ether as anesthesia, and requiring fellow enslaved women Philomenia (Chinna Palmer) and Betty (Alex Johnson) to assist in holding them down while he operates. All the while, George seems most concerned with his own discovery process and building his reputation, as well as the potential to help the white plantation owners’ wives once he has perfected the process, despite the fact that he seems to find working on women’s bodies repulsive. He also is particularly interested in Philomenia, who assists him in his practice and is initially looked on with suspicion by the patients. Soon, however, Philomenia, who is expecting, will learn even more about the brutality of the situation in which the patients live, as she also deals with George’s whims and obsession, as well as suspicion and contempt from the lady of the house, George’s wife Josephine (Alison Kertz), who Philomenia has known all her life, being born into servitude to Josephine’s family.

This is a play that doesn’t shy away from the truly horrific elements of the situation, while also focusing on the problematic ethical situation involved, as George does seek to cure these women of a condition that causes enduring pain, but holds them captive so they have no choice about what he does and how he goes about his efforts. It also serves to highlight the brutality of slavery in terms of everyday realities for these women, who live at the whim of their plantation owners and are often separated from their loved ones, and are sometimes forced into personal situations that they are not allowed to refuse. The women still form friendships and rivalries, and struggle to find hope in the midst of their bleak situation, finding purpose and bonding in small but essential tasks like using flowers to make perfume to disguise the smell caused by their condition. There’s also an attraction and tentative courtship that develops between Philomenia and Lewis (Brian McKinley), a young enslaved man who works in the fields at the plantation, even though neither is free to truly pursue a relationship. 

There are a lot of issues covered in this play, and it’s told in a sometimes stylized, sometimes bluntly realistic manner, with a well-paced script and a first-rate cast. The central figure in the story is Philomenia, who goes through quite an intense journey as the story develops, and Palmer gives a compelling, truly remarkable performance as a woman who deals with trial after trial, and shows her strength and resilience in the midst of it all. There are also excellent performance from Davis, Yancy, and Silas, who display strong ensemble chemistry as the women bond in the midst of their shared trials. Kertz is also memorable as the entitled, suspicious, demanding Josephine, and excellent support from Johnson as Betty, as well as McKinley in two roles and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in a dual role as a haughty plantation owner and a young doctor who assists George. 

The story is also given added poignancy and power by means of the technical production, through use of Margery and Peter Spack’s versatile and evocative set.  Joe Clapper’s remarkable lighting is also memorable, especially in moments when surgery takes places behind a sheet that drapes from the ceiling, making the figures loom larger and the situation seem all the more horrific and ominous. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Andre Harrington in providing detailed period clothing, as well as sound designer Lamar Harris.

Behind the Sheet is a truly remarkable, as well as harrowing and intense theatrical experience. It showcases the brutality of slavery while also highlighting a problematic medical situation and shedding light on the figures whose stories have not been emphasized much until recently–these women who survived the horrors not only of slavery, but of unethical and often brutal medical treatment. This is not an easy show to watch in many moments, but it’s an important story to tell, and the Black Rep has presented it with remarkable effect. 

Taijha Silas, Christina Yancy, Chinna Palmer, Patience Davis
Photo: The Black Rep

 

The Black Rep is presenting Behind the Sheet at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until April 3rd, 2022

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