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Miss Evers' Boys
By Macey Levin
A scar on America's history is the shameful Tuskegee Institute Study chronicled from 1932-1972 in which 399 African-Americans were denied treatment for syphilis and deceived by officials of the United States Public Health Service. These men were told they were being treated for "bad blood" and should be proud to participate in this special program that would help save thousands of lives. They were not told they were sacrificing their own health or offered any choice in their own health care.
This historical incident forms the basis for David Feldshuh's play Miss Evers' Boys. It is a fictionalization of the actual incident though Feldshuh has used primary sources and Miss Evers is based on an actual nurse. The work has been performed throughout the country and is an Emmy Award-winning movie. The current production by the highly reputed Melting Pot Theatre Company at The McGinn/Cazale Theatre is its New York premiere.
The focus of the play is on the public health nurse who attempts to aid four of the men in the study but is thwarted by self-serving doctors and Washington bureaucracy. Miss Evers meets Caleb, Ben, Willie and Hodman while administering a program run by the white Dr. John Douglas and his black colleague Dr. Eugene Brodus, to treat their syphilitic conditions. After money is no longer available, the doctors devise the Tuskegee Study to change the direction of their work from the treatment of syphilis to the observation of the ravages of the disease and to keep the money rolling in, all in the name of science. . . for forty years. In 1946, they use deceitful tactics to prevent their patients from receiving the newly developed miracle drug penicillin, which benefits others who are not in the study. Miss Evers reluctantly accepts her role in this charade after she is coerced by the doctors' manipulative tactics. She hopes to mitigate the effects of the experiments on the boys.
The men have simple "aspirations," a word that becomes a motivating force as their respect grows for the open and supportive nurse. They perform at occasional competitions called gillees, playing simple instruments that include harmonica, washboard and wash bucket to accompany Willie's dancing. In gratitude for her good will, they adopt the name of Miss Evers' Boys. The singing and dancing contribute to a number of joyous and then painful scenes as the disease gradually inflicts its punishments.
As time evolves Miss Evers grows more and more apprehensive about her role in their victimization. She shares her thoughts with the audience in a series of short monologues, revealing her love for the men, and her fears and anger. After years spent following her calling, she is forced to watch her charges suffer; she moves to rectify her past actions and to find relief from her guilt. In reflection, she tells us, "They were susceptible to kindness" The acting is straightforward without histrionics or blatant emotional manipulations. Though the men have limited education and toil on farms, they have gathered unadorned workaday knowledge of the world. It is this simplicity that ennobles them. Feldshuh has not created them as stereotypes, but they are innocents. Chad L. Coleman, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Byron Easley and Daryl Edwards create strong and energetic characters as the four victims of the misguided research. There is warmth and vigor in their performances with each of them developing his individual personality. As the decades pass from the 30's to the 40's and the 70's, the toll of the experiment registers on their characterizations.
Adriane Lenox as Miss Evers is also controlled and does not allow herself to indulge in melodrama; the nurse's conflicts are simply stated underlying the pain she is bearing. There are moments, however, when she speaks quite rapidly, slurring some of her dialogue. Nonetheless, it is a touching performance.
The doctors, J. Paul Boehmer as Douglas and Terry Alexander as Brodus, provide a sense of humanity early in the work, but they soon become fanatically dedicated to the study, losing their compassion. The actors walk a fine line avoiding elements of cliched evil.
Kent Gash has effectively directed the show by utilizing the small Cazale/McGinn stage to focus the energies of the cast. He has chosen simplicity and directness allowing the content of the work to be clearly understood. A strong feature of the production is Emily Beck's slatted wood design creating a sense of a rural world that has been fragmented and broken. The various locations are suggested by minimal set pieces, keeping attention riveted on the action. Her work is complemented by the unobtrusive yet effective lighting of William H. Grant III.
There are exchanges that reflect the racism of the era in the context of the dialogue, but not in diatribes. It is the story of the nurse and her four men that is important, though the politics pervade the atmosphere. Miss Evers' Boys is an engrossing theatrical experience.
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