Review: HeLa (Sideshow Theatre and Greenhouse Productions)

| November 25, 2018

Carolyn Nelson, Matt Fletcher and Ann James star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse Productions    




Written by J. Nicole Brooks
at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru Dec 23  |  tix: $20-$35  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


World-premiere ‘HeLa’ is well-intentioned but uneven


Carolyn Nelson, Matt Fletcher and Ann James star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse Productions

Sideshow Theatre and Greenhouse Productions presents

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks became immortal.

Her cells, which later became known as HeLa, were the first human cells to grow outside the body. They were later used for everything from medical treatment to cosmetics. Though Henrietta herself succumbed to cancer soon after the initial cell harvest, essential parts of her live on.

Ayah Sol Masai Hall and Nicole Michelle Haskins star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse ProductionsThe only problem is, Henrietta Lacks never consented to, or profited from, any of this. She came to the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins University hospital as a poor 30-year-old mother of five who was bleeding between her periods and was concerned. As Henrietta was diagnosed with and treated for cervical cancer, an enterprising doctor saw her cells as the answer to his prayers. Years later, Henrietta’s story became a bestselling book (written by Chicagoan Rebecca Skloot) and an Oprah-produced movie.

Now, Sideshow Theatre’s world premiere HeLa intertwines Henrietta Lacks’ story with that of a young black girl who loves science and a lonely black woman stranded among the stars. J. Nicole Brooks’ concept is fascinating and certain moments ring true, but the stories are interwoven so clumsily that the message is easily lost. In fact, a day later I’m still puzzling over what exactly this play is about.

Brooks is an accomplished actor, playwright and director: two years ago she co-directed Lookingglass Theatre’s vaudeville stunner Thaddeus & Slocum. Her talent and work ethic are unquestioned. HeLa is full of good ideas and even better intentions: the intersections of black women, science, history and the future. The play’s most poignant moments are small and intimate: a scared, illiterate Henrietta (Nicole Michelle Haskins) struggles to tell an unsympathetic nurse (Ann James) what is wrong with her body. Thirty years later, an intelligent grade-schooler (Ayah Sol Masai Hall) who lost her mother at an early age thrives under the guidance of her no-nonsense aunt (also Haskins), who stops at nothing to make sure she’s properly challenged at school and her passion for science is fulfilled. Even the free verse musings of Jata (Deanna Reed-Foster), looking down at a planet that’s getting more unhinged by the minute, burst with poignancy.

Nicole Michelle Haskins and Ayah Sol Masai Hall star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse ProductionsDeanna Reed-Foster stars in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse Productions Ayah Sol Masai Hall and David Lawrence Hamilton star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse ProductionsAnn James and Nicole Michelle Haskins star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse ProductionsNicole Michelle Haskins and David Lawrence Hamilton star in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greehouse Production

The problem is, nothing really ties together.

The play’s bloated running time (at least half an hour too long) drags on, jumping around in time. Even the narratives of Jata and the Little Girl go together, thanks to the 1981 eclipse that’s a major plot point and the Little Girl’s fascination with Carl Sagan and all things celestial. Though the play is called HeLa, Lacks’s story feels shoehorned in, a desperate bid to cash in on the recent resurgence of interest and the history of using women of color’s bodies to further science without their permission. Many times, HeLa feels like two different plays: one of a space-loving child and the heavenly being who watches over her, and the other of the now-historical figure who changed the course of science and never knew, all while suffering greatly in a gynecological ward, separated from her husband and children.

To make matters worse, the actors appear under-rehearsed, often stumbling through dialogue. Haskins, fresh off her supporting role in Firebrand’s Caroline, or Change, is her usual dynamic self as both the visibly trembling Henrietta and the Little Girl’s stern but loving aunt who later encounters a medical setback of her own. But HeLa’s script feels unfinished, a jumble of Brooks’s thoughts without any real cohesion. Because of the flawed source material, in need of at least one rewrite, what could have been a fantastical musing of black women’s roles in science and history is instead a curious jumble.

Rating: ★★½

HeLa continues through December 23rd at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$35 (students, seniors, industry: $15), and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)

David Lawrence Hamilton, Ann James, Matt Fletcher and Nicole Michelle Haskins star in HeLa

Photos by Jonathan L. Green 




Matt Fletcher (Doctor, Major Tom, others), Ayah Sol Masai Hall (Little Girl), David Lawrence Hamilton (Steve, Husband Man, others), Nicole Michelle Haskins (Bird, Woman, others), Ann James (Nurse, Researcher, others), Carolyn Nelson (Big Titty Pat, Cousin, others), Deanna Reed-Foster (Jata, Patient, others)

behind the scenes

Jonathan L. Green (director, photographer), Yu Shibagaki (scenic design), Noël Huntzinger (costume design), Sim Carpenter (lighting design), Michael Huey (sound design, composer), Jonathan Berg-Einhorn (properties design), Justin J. Sacramone (dramaturg), Catherine Allen (production manager), Emily Ioppolo (stage manager)

Deanna Reed-Foster stars in HeLa, Sideshow Theatre and Greenhouse Productions


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: 2018 Reviews, Greenhouse Productions, Greenhouse Theater Center, Lauren Emily Whalen, New Work, Sideshow Theatre, World Premier

Comments (0)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.

Comments are closed.