By my count, at least six monuments or memorials exist in the United States commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century American physician who has been hailed throughout history as “the father of modern gynecology”. Specifically, Sims discovered a curative surgery that eliminated the fistula pain that many women suffered from as a result of pregnancy complications, in many ways among the greatest advances in women’s health. The inevitable problem with monuments and memorials, however, is that they too easily become the midwives of lies, placing individuals on a literal pedestal without questioning who lifted them or on whose back the stone was placed. For example, and to my knowledge, none of J. Marion Sims’ memoirs mentions the fact that he made his reputation performing painful surgeries – without anesthesia or sedation – on enslaved women who were unable to offer consent. enlightened, if they had even had that opportunity.
Fortunately, Dallas playwright Anyika McMillan-Herod has erected her own monument in the form of her drama DO NO HARM, a monument built on words, laughter and tears rather than marble and granite, which speaks to her spectators and asks them to respond in kind, and which finally honors the African-American women whose lives were shattered so that another man could make his reputation. The play, produced by the Soul Rep Theater Company and the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, will run March 10-19 at the Wyly Theater.
DO NO HARM tells the story of several months in the life of three women known to have been operated on by Sims when he was still at the start of his career in the southern United States: Anarcha, the first woman to be cured ; Betsey; and Lucia. As the women survive the final months of their treatment, they reflect on faith, the meaning of suffering, brotherhood and the small miracles in their lives that allow them to endure the unbearable. They are frequently in their cabin by a white associate of the Sims family, Tabitha, whose overt racism belies the way she too was dehumanized and made less of a woman as a result of the institution of slavery.
Originally slated for a staged production in 2020, DO NO HARM first premiered as a “play/movie hybrid,” with many scenes filmed at the Dallas Heritage Village. While this multimedia production proved a critical success, it finally receives the full stage production it deserves; the stories of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy are best heard face-to-face from their own mouths, and the audience’s emotional catharsis is palpable on opening night amid gasps, sighs and even laughter.
McMillan-Herod’s script doesn’t feel the need to follow many of the accepted conventions of drama. As the time in the room progresses linearly from just before Thanksgiving to just after the dawn of New Years, the passage of time means nothing to the conversations and memories of the enslaved women who spend their time chatting and caring for them. each other. They fall into the past, resist the pressures of the present, and look as far as hope can take them into the future, giving the play such an ethereal timelessness that the audience would be forgiven for thinking the action of the drama was unfolding. in our century instead of almost 200 years ago. Even more strikingly, McMillan-Herod crafts a narrative that constantly surprises. The climax the public expects never comes (it’s no spoiler to say that the women have lived long enough to find themselves cured), but the climax they don’t see coming hits them like a slap on the face. Saying more would diminish the emotional impact.
The three actresses playing Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy have a difficult task ahead of them, creating emotional lives for women who have been largely erased from history, a challenge they easily overcome with courage and commitment. As the largely mute Anarcha, Brittney Bluitt compensates for her character’s silence with expressive physicality; the intimate space of the Wyly’s black box theater allows every arched eyebrow and strained smile to speak follows that would get lost in a larger space. Bluitt engages so comfortably in this movement of voices through that, when she finally speaks, she sounds like a hurricane, preying on the injustices of a world in which she has tried to remain silent for so long. Johanna Nchekwube plays motherly Betsey, a woman who finds strength in her seemingly endless faith…at least until that faith runs out. Nchekwube’s commitment to his character’s ardent Christianity is surprisingly heartfelt, never condescending to stereotype or caricature, but wavering just enough at signs of trouble to make his crisis of faith seem legitimate and inevitable. Whitney LaTrice Coulter’s Lucy stands as a foil for Betsey, cursing God and man, caring for little beside her sisters in the cabin and the family waiting for her outside its walls. The brilliance of Coulter’s performance is in her levity, her ability to add a hint of laughter to her righteous outrage so that the audience sees a woman who can view the world around her cynically but who is all even committed to survival. When reunited on stage, the three actresses create something like music, riffing on each other, each sure of their unique purpose and performance while acknowledging that their stories are made more powerful by being told. together.
Claire Carson’s Tabitha is the only concrete white presence in the play, her character less historical than thematic, meant to show how patriarchal slavery affects everyone under her domain, regardless of race. There are times when Tabitha’s occasional racism seems a bit too abrasive for someone who regularly visits three black women for companionship and conversation, but Carson’s childish good humor perfectly exemplifies how this woman has been maintained. immature by the world around her without making her the butt of all the jokes.
Any noticeable flaws in the production had nothing to do with these actresses or the utilitarian direction of Guinea Bennett-Price, which makes great use of the limited space. On the contrary, this piece that so easily transports the audience into timelessness seemed haunted by the frustrations of modern technology. The voiceovers providing background biographical information about the enslaved women were sometimes too garbled to fully understand, and the lighting design left the women in virtual darkness in more than one instance, which may have been intentional if the characters hadn’t been holding up intended signs. be read by the public.
But DO NO HARM ultimately rises to its scripts and how it’s portrayed by four actresses whose work will hopefully grace the DFW region for years to come. They gave voice to the voiceless and in doing so gave us a truth to fight the lies.