Written and Performed by Adura Onashile
Direction and Dramaturgy by Graham Eatough
Q Theatre, Auckland | October 21-25
Solo shows are a hard thing to master, and sometimes an even harder thing to stomach. If you’re not in love with the actor, their character(s), or the story they’re telling, then they can be a test for an audience’s endurance. But when everything lines up, solo shows can be some of the most immediate, affecting pieces of theatre. HeLa is one of those experiences.
HeLa tells two stories. It tells the story of an African-American woman in Baltimore, Henrietta Lacks, who goes into a hospital and is told she has cancer. Some of her cells are taken, without her permission, for research purposes. It also tells the story of the immense scientific discoveries that these cells took part in. It is based on Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but the stories are intertwined in such a way that is impossible to unentangle them, which turns out to be very important down the line.
Both writer and performer, Adura Onashile, is a captivatingly engaged and immensely engaging presence onstage. Although she’s probably performed this show more times than she can count, you can feel her interest in this woman and it pulls the audience right in. She also switches between characters with ease, whether she’s playing one of Lacks’s grown-up daughters, a research aide, or her doctor, and she nails some particularly difficult accents while doing so. A particular piece of genius is her decision to narrate in her natural British accent while she acts out the traumas that Henrietta goes through; it keeps us at a remove from this character and reminds us that we can never really know each other.
The facts of the show are fascinating, and are delivered in a way that any reasonably educated audience member could make sense of them, but the most fascinating, compelling, and ultimately affecting part of the show is the ethical dilemmas it raises. HeLa draws clear lines between the exploitation of this woman for science’s sake and the exploitation of African Americans throughout history, while never condemning sessions. As Onashile stated simply in a post-show Q&A: the fact that Henrietta Lacks was exploited and that her cells have helped almost all of us in some way are “two uncomfortable truths that sit beside each other.”
That this show brings up this ethical dilemma while never sitting on either side of it is something to applaud. While this play aims at your head, it rests and lingers in your heart. The last words of the play are “someone ask,” which is as profoundly moving and human as theatre can get.