‘Behind the Sheet’ reveals an uncomfortable truth connecting medicine and slavery
This season, The Black Rep continues to explore the often-undocumented impact of Black people on U.S. history in their productions. “Behind the Sheet,” by Charly Evon Simpson, is an engrossing and powerful fact based drama about advances in medicine made possible through experimentation on slaves.
The show opens with a shadow play of a doctor performing experimental surgery on a female slave. It’s a visceral scene, loud with the sounds of fear, anguished pain, and callous determination that quickly establish the themes and stakes. The doctor purchases slaves for his medical experimentation, selecting women that have miscarried or delivered a stillborn child resulting in the development of fistulae. And then he experiments on them in surgery after painful surgery, with no anesthesia and minimal aftercare.
Smart, obedient and attractive, Philomenia is the doctor’s favorite assistant during these surgeries. The doctor relies on her to calm and assist in his invasive investigations involving the women. First, she holds the women down and tends to their post-operation wounds with opium and bandages. But, Philomenia is also pregnant with the doctor’s child. When she goes into labor and complications arise, she becomes his most operated on patient as he obsessively works to resolve her medical condition.
Told primarily from the perspective of Philomenia and the other patients of the doctor, their story is courageous, wince inducing, compelling and untold for far too long. We are shown just how brutal and cruel slavery is when the doctor refuses to use anesthesia on the Black women while administering it to any white women in his surgery practice. We learn more about the women, their pain and fear, as well as the tenuous friendships they develop, during the brief respites as they heal between surgeries. Expertly paced with pointed direction by Ron Himes and the unsettling presence
Chinna Palmer and Jeff Cummings are captivating as Philomena and George, the doctor. The choices Philomenia makes for self-preservation play across Palmer’s face with unrelenting transparency, showing us just how clearly she understands her situation. The audience is naturally sympathetic to Philomenia and Palmer ensures we understand the character is a survivor, not a saint. Time and again she advocates for humane treatment for herself and the other women, played with empathetic distinction by Patience Davis, Christina Yancy, Taijha Silas and Alex Johnson. Time and again, the unflinching and obsessed doctor says no and she must, for her own safety, let it slide.
Cummings gives us an ambitious, lecherous, and monstrously cruel doctor in a strikingly faceted performance. While our sympathies and affection are dictated by Palmer’s commanding presence, Cummings ensures the doctor is not entirely unsympathetic despite his disturbing and unconscionable persona. There are moments when he seems to truly see and value Philomenia, however fleeting. George and his wife Josephine, played with the right measure of disdain and jealousy by Alison Kertz, come across as purposefully more one dimensional and narrowly focused than the slave women. Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Brian McKinney provide strong, integrated support, and McKinney has a number of touching moments as Philomenia’s unflappably persistent suitor.
Himes keeps the tension as constant as the doctor’s daily surgeries and never shies away from showing us just how truly abusive and lacking in consent these procedures are. Margery and Peter Spack’s deceptively simple design, Joe Clapper’s lighting, Lamar Harris’ sound direction and Andre Harrington’s costumes add emphasis to the retelling. Though at times painful to watch, the company uses heightened realism, stylistically as well as through the performances, to excellent effect.
While Simpson’s play is a work of fiction, “Behind the Sheet” is based on the slave owner and surgeon Dr. J. Sims and the eleven slave women (only three -- Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy -- were named in the doctor’s biography), on whom he developed the procedures shown in the play. Simpson’s well-crafted script and Himes’ direction honor the women’s history with meaningful storytelling, effectively keeping the audience focused on the women rather than elevating the doctor’s work.
The provocative script raises uncomfortable questions as it chronicles the advancements in women’s medicine during the nineteenth century. Fully connected emotionally wrenching performances emphasize the human cost and suffering of progress and Palmer’s performance is simply transcendent. The show may raise uncomfortable feelings for some and, frankly, that’s likely a good thing. Though it’s a story some would rather not know, it’s well past time for these truths to be told. The Black Rep’s production of “Behind the Sheet,” continuing through April 3rd in the Berges Theatre at COCA, is important theater that reveals hidden history and holds your attention.