Edinburgh Fringe Festival: HeLa
Behind such medical breakthroughs as the Polio vaccination, cloning, HIV diagnosis and studies into genome identifying are a number of leading scientists, recognised for their achievements in medical research with Nobel Prizes. Perhaps less commonly known is the connection between all of these medical discoveries. Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five, walked into a hospital in 1951 complaining of a pain in her abdomen. She was diagnosed with cancer, but unbeknown to her during her examination her doctor took a cell sample, one that would change medical science forever. The sample became the raw material, kept alive outside the body (the first cells ever to do so), and used for medical research and testing for decades. The cells, better known as HeLa, are still used today, and until little more than a few days ago, they were used without permission from any of the Lacks.
HeLa explores how one woman’s illness and a doctor’s abuse of power led to a revolution of medical science and the prolonging of life, and the production of vaccines and medicines. Written and performed by Adura Onashile, it is a fascinating and in-depth look into how HeLa cells have shaped the medical world. Using projections to show the medical breakthroughs alongside storytelling from Onashile, HeLa combines multimedia and a fascinating story to educate its audience on HeLa cells.
To call HeLa an educational play is not to belittle the quality of the work or the topic, but it does make for a fascinating history and explanation for those not involved in the field of medical research. Henrietta’s contribution and the continuation of her life within the HeLa cells is awe-inspiring, but where HeLa astounds us through information it also raises moral questions around the ethics of medical trials without permission. Do we praise the doctor who discovered that Henrietta’s cells would multiply more than others and would stay alive outside the body? Do we praise the production company that created HeLa cells en masse to ship across the world for scientists to work upon? At what point do we raise concerns over the ethics of this?
Fascinating and enlightening, HeLa really does get the audience thinking and questioning. Whilst Graham Eatough’s direction and Onashile’s written words and portrayal of Henrietta is compelling to watch, and her story touches our hearts somewhat, there is something missing from HeLa. It’s all very well projecting facts and figures, and fusing this into the telling of Henrietta’s life and the legacy she has left with her children, but it needs something more: dramatic tension and a performance arc. It does informative well, but this doesn’t feel like a performance lecture. Perhaps like the use of HeLa cells in splicing together different genes, this performance is a mixture of many things.
Originally published on A Younger Theatre.