One of the apologies which sprang more easily to President Clinton's lips was for the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of black men suffering from syphilis in rural Alabama were monitored over a period of forty years whilst treatment was withheld from them. Physician and playwright David Feldschuh has fictionalised to a greater or lesser extent the experiences of the nurse involved in the experiment, Eunice Rivers – here renamed Evers – for what was first an Emmy-winning television movie, and is now a theatrical production by Santa Fé Stages visiting the Barbican as part of its BITE strand of programming.
Responses to the piece can be complex: scenes which have an immense potency at the time diminish with distance to seem part of a deliberately "button-pushing" emotional approach, although the outrage at the Tuskegee project itself remains. Indeed, the project was laden with similar contradictions: originally conceived as a way of regaining government funding to treat the patients, it became a reason to refuse them such treatment; in order to prove that syphilis knew no racial discrimination, it was deemed necessary to allow several hundred black people to die. Those who survived were those who "deserted".
Feldschuh's strong, sensitive script focuses on a quartet of amateur song-and-dance men who name themselves Miss Evers' Boys in honour of the nurse who treats them with respect and humanity. Lorey Hayes' Miss Evers begins the project with reservations and ends on the horns of a dilemma; scenes from 1932 and 1946 are interspersed with her testimony to a Senate hearing on the project in 1972. The "Boys" are a deliberately diverse bunch – the folk-healer, the cynic, the aspiring dance star and the stoical older man; the medical staff likewise cover a spectrum from Miss Evers' ethical anguish through the local consultant's uneasy collaboration to the paper-pushing heartlessness of the government doctor (the only white character in the play).
Several scenes have immense power: the initial bonding between visiting Dr Douglas and Willie the dancing fanatic as they awkwardly reconstruct a half-remembered dance routine, the lengthy and agonising portrayal of a spinal tap – in many ways the most effective moment is the most minimal, when the elderly, crippled Willie, outside the hearings, forces Nurse Evers and the doctors to watch whilst he listens to a gramophone and, unable to dance, recites his old routine step by step. However, despite a clutch of uniformly excellent performances under the direction of Martin L. Platt, Miss Evers' Boys retains a niggling sensation that it is more naturally a movie, and one intended less as testimony than liberal penance; like that presidential apology, its purpose is to make us feel better through mortification.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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