Response to the Scotsman article published Monday 12th August 2013
To the Editor,
Firstly I would like to thank Tiffany Jenkins for her article on HeLa, the
production currently on at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Festival
that deals with the true story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line.
During our lengthy discussion about the production after the show,
Jenkins at no point said that she would be writing an article or had any
professional interest in it. However, I welcome the opportunity to respond publicly
to some of the issues she has raised.
It has been of crucial importance to those of us making the show to strike
a balance between describing the scientific discoveries made using the
HeLa cell line and the attempt to tell a more personal story about Henrietta
Lacks, and the society that she lived in at the time her cells were first
taken. Despite what Jenkins suggests in her article, the show makes great
efforts to tell the science side of the story. There is at least as much material
covering the scientific discoveries, told in a factual way, as the more personal
story of Henrietta's life. Indeed, this juxtaposition of the story of scientific
achievement and progress with the story of Henrietta and her family is crucial to
the drama of the piece. It is a shame Jenkins was not able to recognize
this and chose instead to misrepresent what set out to be, and most have
found, a balanced production.
Science and race are not comfortable bedfellows and it is not surprising
to me that Jenkins would attempt to keep them separate. But we have to
be clear, this was the era of Jim Crow, when black people were treated
as second class citizens in every aspect of societal life. Jenkins’ claim that
institutional racism “was not reflected in this case”, when Henrietta Lacks
was treated (and the early research carried out) in a racially segregated
hospital is, frankly, bizarre. As much as Jenkins would like to believe
that somehow the scientists working at the Johns Hopkins hospital were
somehow separate from or unaffected by this institutional racism negates
the complex history of race and science in America that the show partly
Jenkins’ main argument that doctors/researchers can't be held responsible
for unethical actions if they are working within a racist culture is an old
apology for not holding people accountable for racism and discrimination
of any kind. It doesn't hold water for me and I'm sure it has been countered
many times more eloquently than I can here. How does she think racist
societies and institutions manifest themselves if not through the actions of
the individuals within them? Of course we need to examine these actions
in context; and that is precisely what the show tries to do.
To conclude her article Jenkins states that the show "does Henrietta Lacks a
disservice by focusing on her tumour cells and not on the person: she was
always more than tissue. She was a mother, a wife and a woman who loved to
dance. That is how she should be remembered."
Ironically this last part is an almost direct quote from the show. One of our
primary motivations in making HeLa was to bring to life the woman behind the
scientific jargon which is why we repeatedly depict her as a mother and
a wife and why the image of her dancing is a recurring motif throughout.
To suggest otherwise, as if this is Jenkins’ view and not the show's, is
We welcome the opportunity for a wider debate on all these issues.
Adura Onashile and Graham Eatough