Saturday, May 17, 2014

ON THE SCENE: Theatre tackles Science in 'HeLa'

Adura Onashile performs solo in  HeLa
The HeLa cell has been a major component driving the major scientific research and advancement in the last sixty three years. The particular qualities of the cell to grow rapidly and it’s resilience has made it an invaluable component in over 90% of scientific labs worldwide. If we think about the scale of which the HeLa cell has had an impact we can think of research in the HIV vaccine, In vitro fertilization, prescription pharmaceuticals, genetics and cloning. This is however a list of facts which you could find in any search engine a few clicks away. We often think about and even more importantly hear about Science in this way.


The HeLa cell in its very name carries with it a more personal but troubling story. It is this story which British-based performer Adura Onashile gave a powerful treatment in her one woman play, HeLa. The name HeLa comes from the hospital lab’s abbreviation of the name Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was an African American woman who was diagnosed with cancer at a hospital in 1961. The other part of her story is that a cell sample was taken from her during her treatment without permission thus beginning the story of the HeLa cells in scientific research. From that moment, even though the course of modern science was set on a path of rapid and highly innovative discoveries enabled by the HeLa cell, the family of Henrietta Lacks was set on another. Onashile in her composed and convincing portrayal of Henrietta’s daughter, Henrietta, The Narrator, The Lab Technician and other characters, relayed how the family have constantly questioned and sought to protect and reclaim the ‘spirit’ of Henrietta as she lives on in some form through HeLa cells worldwide. At one point, we realise via one of the characters that Henrietta Lacks is the only human to ever have more cells outside her body than inside it.  

The dramatic imagery  & sound of 'HeLa'
Various questions of the ethics in conflict with the ambition of the field of Science come in to play. Onashile’s voicing of Henrietta’s daughter finds her thinking about the cells as pieces of her mother who was exploited by her own doctors. In other segments of the performance we see images and video projected of the various Nobel Prize winners whose research and scientific discoveries depended on the use of this immortal cell line. Many of the issues raised are not new questions, as those of us paying attention to worldwide news would be familiar with the issues of ethics involved in the manipulation of nature involved with scientific research such as Stem-cell research. What ‘HeLa’ presents is an argument for humanizing and reconsideration of how Science’s race towards advancement occurs.


The history of The HeLa cell line is delivered to the audience
The performance was pared down with elements of multimedia, dance and the set working to present a sometimes abstract and sensory and at times clinical experience. Onashile managed to step back and forth between place and time notably by her use of various regional accents and use of a small number of props such as a large chalkboard recounting the names of scientists benefitting from the Henrietta’s cell line. The performance was followed by a Q & A session which left audience members with the beginning of a dialogue about the issues. Eventually though you ask the question, is it ok that the HeLa cell was taken because of what it has contributed; or does the greater good of scientific advancement trump individual rights? 

The play was sponsored by The Jamaica Cancer Society and staged at Edna Manley College of the Visual & Performing Arts. It was directed by Graham Eatough and inspired by ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot.

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