HELA, one helluva show!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

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THE theatre has the ability to break down the most complex concepts into palatable, bite-size pieces that can be easily swallowed and understood.

Case in point is HeLa, the one-woman drama written and performed by British actress Adura Onashile, playing for this weekend only at the Vera Moody Concert Hall at the School of Music, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

HeLa tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who was admitted to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951.

Doctors extracted a small part of a tumour found in her cervix. During radiation treatments, two samples of her cervix, healthy and cancerous, were removed without her permission.

The samples were harvested for medical research.

These cells would become the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.

Here, what could have easily been a university-level science lecture has been given a human face thanks to the talent of Onashile.

The 55-minute-long production is a riveting drama that would have made one sit for longer to experience what unfolds on stage.

With the help of multi-media projectors and expert lighting and poignant sound effects, the Henrietta Lacks story comes to life on stage, but it is the live, on-stage work by Onashile which carries the story.

With no supporting cast, grand set or comedic punch lines, it is her strong dramatic presence which draws in the audience and reveals the story behind the story.

Her acting talents show depth and scope as she is able to portray nearly a dozen different characters -- male, female, black, white using a range of accents -- to great effect.

The production also relies on improvisation as it relates to the set with four stools being used for everything from a car, to ferris wheel and doctor's examintion table. Again, this is artfully done.

Onashile's acting stacks up well against her well-written script. The narrative is well placed among the 'dialogue' which again allows for easy listening and comprehension as she traverses both the human and scientific sides to this story. Not bad for her first script.

She states that she was inspired by Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

"When I first read the books I was amazed that I had never heard the story before," Onashile told the Sunday Observer during a question/answer segment after the show. "I could not help but wrestle with the idea that Henrietta cannot rest in peace as her cells are still being used in thousands of scientific research projects," she continued.

The process of taking HeLa from page to stage took Onashile the better part of one-and-a-half years. The first version -- a half-hour production -- was staged in 2012.

Since then, a series of re-writes have brought her to this version which was showcased at this year's Made In Edinburgh festival and has been touring since.

-- Richard Johnson

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