Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Behind the Sheet
Playwright Charly Evon Simpson's 1840s medical drama is based on the lives of young Black slave women suffering from complications after pregnancy and from dozens of primitive surgeries for each of them after the fact. Adding insult to injury, about half of those pregnancies were caused by their white doctor himself.
It's a stark nightmare–relieved at very regular intervals by visual poetry and also by the characters' genuine warmth and deep humanity toward each other–under the wise direction of The Black Rep founder Ron Himes. The postpartum patients are suffering from fistulas, which respond poorly to simply being sewn up on a primitive operating table using silk thread and (eventually) lead sutures.
Chinna Palmer is heartwrenching as Philomena, a patient, lover, and nurse in the practice of a doctor who is based on the real-life surgeon J. Marion Sims of Lancaster County, South Carolina (Philomena is also a personal slave to the doctor's wife). After many painful failures, the doctor ultimately hits upon an historic medical breakthrough, with ironic complications of its own for everyone involved.
Jeff Cummings is excellent as that slave-owning doctor who believes he is the world's first obstetrician/gynecologist, here revealing an authentic mix of the scientist and egomaniac. And of course, all of this is long before modern sterilization procedures; and morphine (though available) is used only sparingly on Black patients. The discovery of ether is only just now appearing on the medical horizon, in this country. You might suppose the German doctor Josef Mengele had a similar self-romanticizing streak in the 1930s. But playwright Simpson and actor Mr. Cummings scarcely brush against satire at all in revealing this semi-fictional doctor's monomania. In his clinical disregard for his patients we realize again the many medical trials of Blacks in America. For a white viewer it is humbling.
The dynamic among the 1840s slaves is resigned and naturalistic. There's also plenty of common sense and even romance of an unexpected gentleness, with Brian McKinney as a suitor of Philomena's, ensnared by her beauty and her plight (he also plays a haunted husband in the first scene outside a grisly surgery). Alison Kertz is the doctor's genteel, occasionally mad wife: like a pre-Civil War Queen of Hearts in a brief but shocking outburst in act one, and later spoiled but also strangely touching in act two. Patience Davis is kind and gentle in a poetic scene, explaining the art of homemade perfume to Ms. Palmer's Philomena.
Christina Yancy, Taijha Silas, and Alex Johnson are strong as slaves who likewise endure many a bleak and failed gynecological surgery. Theirs is an existential drama, with only endurance and memory to see them through. Ryan Lawson-Maeske is starkly real, as always, in a pair of very different roles on stage, one of which broaches the darkly satirical.
But thank goodness for the warmth and long-suffering nature of the slave characters themselves. Otherwise, it almost goes too deeply into my brain: the persistent use of lighting projections (by set-designing super-team Marjorie & Peter Spack) cuts right into our subconscious. And director Himes reveals a bit of welcome style where the white slave-holders are concerned. I must confess I have a weakness for a dash of directorial flourish, which is nicely satisfied here.
In the same 19th century context, lighting designer Joe Clapper's use of modern footlights heightens the very subtle flavor of melodrama, reinventing it into a present-day sensibility, especially in the scenes between the doctor and his wife. Overall, it's a show that operates on multiple levels, with great precision.
The Black Rep's Behind the Sheet runs through April 3, 2022, at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity Ave., just east (then south) of the University City gates, St. Louis MO. Ample parking in a lit garage right across the street. Bring proof of vaccination and a photo ID; and masks are required at all times. For more information visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc., an independent national labor union