Dallas — Have you ever kept a secret, even if you knew your silence could harm people you love, including yourself? Why would anyone shoulder that weight? Check out Miss Evers’ Boys for one angle on the question.
Miss Evers’ Boys is a tough play to watch, particularly in African American Repertory Theater’s compelling production, directed by Belinda Boyd, at K.D. Studio Theatre. For nearly three hours we witness an act of criminal inhumanity unfold in the name of medical research. Four vigorous, life-loving black men with syphilis are deliberately deceived and betrayed, not just by the white government doctor, but also by the black nurse they trust and adore. She loves these guys back, by the way, so how can she play along with the egomaniac doctors until the inevitable “end point” of the experiment? Good question. Miss Evers’ Boys is the agonizing response.
David Feldshuh’s drama, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is a fictionalized account of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male that took place in Macon County, Alabama, from 1932 to 1972 until a social worker finally blew the whistle on the shocking results he witnessed and shut the study down. Hundreds of poor, usually illiterate black men suffering from “bad blood” were given mercury and arsenic, a treatment that worked if it didn’t kill the patient, until funding ran out. After that, they got placebos and the doctors just watched and recorded their slow deaths. None were ever told this ugly fact. Even when penicillin was available in the 50s, the doctors elected to withhold the antibiotic from the study group because taking it would “invalidate” the data. Really—by maybe saving lives? Horrible, but it did happen—and not in Nazi Germany.
At the center of the play is the semi-autobiographical Eunice Evers, embodied here in a brave performance by Regina Washington, as she testifies to a 1972 investigative committee about what happened. Most of the story is told in flashbacks, starting from its beginnings where Miss Evers first meets her patients in an old schoolhouse, effectively evoked by Bradley Gray’s raw lumber backdrop and a blackboard. She’s proud of her nursing degree and the chance to use it for good instead of waiting tables. Nurse Evers now works for the government, and her job is to explain to the men how “bad blood” destroys the body slowly and needs medication. At first the men are wary, but smiling, reassuring Miss Evers offers free exams, food, rides in her motor car to their gillie dancing contests, plus $50 of burial insurance to stay on board to the end of the ride. What poor black sharecropper could turn that down?
Miss Evers’ Boys, a name they give their dance band, are a lively, fun-loving crew. The scene where they’re all packed cheek by jowl into an invisible car (stair-steps and a wheel rocking in Washington’s firm grip), laughing and joking on the way to a competition conveys the joy they all felt in each others’ company early on.
Old Ben Washington (a slow-talking, dignified Selmore Haines, III) is ashamed he can’t write his name, and becomes Miss Evers’ lifelong fan when she lovingly shows him how to letter. Hodman Bryan (a wide-eyed, determined Alonzo Waller) knows all kinds of folk cures, including shouting at the moon to cure disease. Willie Johnson (an irresistibly upbeat Christopher Dontrell Piper) is the heart and soul of the dance group and has high hopes of making it all the way to Harlem’s Cotton Club. Caleb Humphries (a solidly skeptical Artist Thornton, Jr.) is a gifted preacher requiring constant reassurance from Miss Evers and a little flirting, to stay in the study—and withstand the grueling spinal taps.
Parker Fitzgerald, as the white doctor heading the study, first attempts an awkward camaraderie with the men, but later reveals his ruthless determination to keep the men off a possible cure so he can trace their progression through “to autopsy.” Angelo Reid, as the black doctor heading the hospital and playing nice with his white superiors, is condescending and arrogant throughout. When Miss Evers begs the doctors to let her tell the men the truth so they can seek real treatment, they merely sneer at her “self-righteous” conscience, and tell her antibiotics might kill a man in late stages of syphilis.
Washington brings a real anguish to the role of Eunice Evers, whose mode of dealing with guilt is part confession, part rationalization. She’s a nurse following a doctor’s orders, she insists. She truly loves her patients, even as the dancer stumbles and the folklore artist loses his mind. In the end, Nurse Evers must struggle with her own conscience and the increasing isolation of those around her as the community becomes aware of her complicity in the study. Silence is hardly golden in this play; in fact, it’s downright deadly.