HeLa tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old black woman who received treatment for cancer in a racially segregated hospital in Baltimore, USA in 1951. Although the story is definitely a tribute to a young black mother, it is also the story of Henrietta Lacks' DNA and her legacy.
This legacy is beyond Henrietta's control: during her examination a sample of her cells were taken without permission and used in experiments, tests and trials which went on to find new treatments for diseases and advances in cell biology. Her cells made Nobel Prize winners and founded advances in medical treatment, but she was never recognised and her family were never consulted in the experiments, which carry on to this day.
This fascinating story is performed by Adura Onashile, who slips in and out of a variety of characters from Henrietta's life. She also embodies the woman herself with passion, integrity and sensitivity, and Onashile's performance is just as compelling as the narrative she skilfully unfolds.
HeLa is closer to traditional theatre than it is to physical theatre, however, when Onashile makes use of an examination table that is centre stage her body convulses and seemingly transforms with a frighteningly possessive force. She lies lifeless on the table with a dead look in her eyes, gazing beyond the audience, supposedly into Henrietta's past. Onashile then forces her body to rise before slamming back down on the table causing a vigorous, loud bang to ring out through the appropriately titled Anatomy Lecture Theatre.
The physicality and storytelling is juxtaposed with video projections from Mettje Hunneman, which act almost as newsreels explaining medical science through 1951 to present day. This reminds the audience of the clinical side of the tale, but also gives us time to digest the performance and the finely crafted story.
Throughout the performance Onashile, as narrator, shows humanity and conveys the seriousness of the narrative while asking questions about race, science, poverty, family and DNA ownership. Many of these questions are left unanswered, leaving the audience to make up their own mind and causing us to think long after the performance is over.