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A new play honors the enslaved black women who helped improve our understanding of reproductive health

Behind the Sheet

Charly Evon Simpson
The Ensemble Studio Theatre
New York, NY

In the era of #metoo, #citeblackwomen, and #blacklivesmatter—all movements founded by black women that, collectively, seek to call attention to pervasive social injustices and secure acknowledgment of this group’s contributions to American society—Charly Evon Simpson has written a play that centers on the experiences of antebellum-era enslaved women, whose sufferings provided a platform for white medical men to pioneer surgical techniques.

As I waited for the play to begin, I was moved by the starkness and simplicity of the stage design. There was an ever-present haze that evoked for me the often obscured nature of slavery in this country’s collective imagination. Most Americans connect slavery and the slave’s work to plantations and cotton. However, it was clear that Simpson and director Colette Robert wanted to convey that enslaved people’s labor, especially enslaved women’s labor, was also reproductive.

James Marion Sims is the historical subject whose controversial gynecological experiments on enslaved women led to a successful surgical repair for obstetrical fistulae patients and who inspired Simpson to write the play. Simpson, however, chooses to tell the story from the perspective of the women.

Philomena, the main character, played effectively by Naomi Lorrain, emerges as the predominant voice. It is she who instructs the other enslaved women on the nature of their illnesses, naming and defining the medical terms that “Dr. George” has written in his notebook. Most audiences would have no trouble inferring the meaning of these terms from contextual clues in the dialogue; however, Simpson’s positioning of Philomena as a learned slave who is able to code switch with ease was an effective way to encourage viewers to think about enslaved people as human beings and not as unsophisticated property.

Philomena, who is George’s assistant and sex slave, is an ever-present voice of compassion and contestation. She insists that his patients experience pain during the surgeries he subjects them to, despite prevailing scientific thought, which held that black women experienced no pain during childbirth and very little pain from operations. And she reminds the audience that the lived experiences of black women should be heard and believed. At times, her speeches are heavy-handed, but alas, slavery itself was heavy-handed.

As the rest of the cast—a core group of enslaved women (Betty, Sally, Mary, and Dinah) and a lone enslaved man (Lewis)—emerge, the audience sees how enslaved people had to suppress their own challenges, feelings, and fears in order to mitigate those of the men and women who owned them. Lewis, for example, is played brilliantly by Shawn Randall, who shows the full range of human frailty and strength. His portrayal conjured up how enslaved people toed a thin line where both sides were fraught: Either they acquiesced to ever-increasing subjugation from their owners or fought back, risking the repercussions of the owners’ emotional volatility.

Although their roles were secondary, Stephen James Anthony’s depiction of Samuel, George’s white male assistant, and Megan Tusing’s role as George’s wife, Josephine, brought life to characters who at times slipped into flattened tropes of whiteness. Through these characters, the audience sees how slavery helped to construct ideas about whiteness and gender during the 19th century. They are self-absorbed, to be sure, but their self-absorption is about their own lack of agency in the world in which they live, a world that created and reinforced structures that upheld advanced age, masculinity, biological whiteness, and ownership of property as the hallmarks of citizenship and worthiness. The penultimate scene, in which George and Josephine discuss his absence from his family’s life because of his career ambitions and demands, was acted beautifully, conveying the sincere longing and vulnerability that Tusing brought to her character.

I wish that the same nuance had been brought to the enslaved women’s roles. These characters at times seemed like stock depictions of the sassy slave (Sally), the haughty house slave (Betty), the refined concubine (Philomena), the angry black woman (Dinah), and the naïve and sensitive slave (Mary). In the final ensemble scene, however, the women reveal vulnerabilities and express love to each other in ways that showed their lives and bodies matter too. This ending was one of the more powerfully acted scenes in the play, and it was in these moments of emotional vulnerability that the actors shone.

Watching a play about slavery, rape, racism, and experimental medicine is difficult. I’m not sure if one could emerge from the experience having “enjoyed” it. Although there were moments when I grew frustrated at the heavy-handed dialogue, the sometimes flat character depictions, and the inelegant data dumps, Simpson brought sensitivity and honor to enslaved black women’s lives, revealing how their suffering sparked innovation that has improved the reproductive health of all women. I look forward to her continued growth as a playwright and as an important new voice in American theater.

****

Behind the Sheet at the Ensemble Studio Theater closes 10 March, 2019. Buy tickets here.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Queens College, City University of New York, New York, NY, USA, and is the author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia Press, 2017).