HeLa - EISF 2013
Monday 8 April 2013 in 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with a cancer that would kill her shortly after.
As a black woman in Baltimore, her rights were limited, and she would never know a cell sample taken without her permission would provide fuel for some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the last half-century, sealing the careers and reputations of many scientists en route.
Such a scandalous violation of human rights forms the background to this new solo piece written and performed by Adura Onashile in association with the Iron-Oxide company and commissioned by Edinburgh International Science Festival. As seen all too appropriately in Summerhall's marvellously evocative Dissection Room, Graham Eatough's production has Onashile jump between Henrietta's all-too-personal story and its greater historical consequences with a verve that has her sprawled on a stretcher one minute, then dancing for dear life itself the next. There is archive film footage too, as Onashile dissects historical data with forensic detail.
It's a shocking slice of shamefully hidden history which does science's reputation no favours as it exposes some of its more clinically invasive and downright abusive practices. In Eatough and Onashile's hands, it is also theatrically bold in the telling, with Onashile's heart-rending performance at its centre. As she chalks up the details of one more scientist who made it big on the back of Henrietta's stem cells, it is a damning indictment of those who effectively dehumanised Henrietta into a symbol, even as they lent her a kind of immortality.
The three Science Festival performances promised much for a full run later in the year of a piece that exposes a topic that remains chillingly relevant.