HeLa turns the story of Henrietta Lacks into a key to the universe | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

HeLa turns the story of Henrietta Lacks into a key to the universe 

Playwright J. Nicole Brooks weaves together race, medicine, and basic humanity into a heartfelt drama.

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Jonathan L. Green

Sideshow Theatre Company presents the world premiere of J. Nicole Brooks's transcendent new play that takes the amazing and horrifying true story of Henrietta Lacks as its launch point but goes far beyond the stars and back. Lacks—the African-American woman from Baltimore whose seemingly immortal and ever-multiplying cancerous tumors were used by medical scientists to study untold maladies—was an unknown historical figure until Rebecca Skloot's bestselling 2010 book. But Brooks's play isn't a biography and Lacks's tale is only one of many stories that inform her heartfelt examination of race, medicine, and basic humanity in America.

A little girl on the west side of Chicago in the 80s dreams of exploring outer space while missing her late mother. An African-American mother of five in segregated early-50s Baltimore checks into a hospital complaining of cervical pain. Meanwhile, in an undetermined but distant future, celestial beings muse about their time on Earth and the grand cosmic meaning of it all. In less capable hands this material could've come off as preachy, sentimental, or just incoherent, but Brooks ties it all together like a master weaver.

The uniformly excellent cast, most juggling multiple roles, are each given moments to shine, but eight-year-old Ayah Sol Masai Hall as the unnamed little girl is the burning star around which this particular galaxy revolves. Brooks has written what will undoubtedly be a play that will be performed countless times in the future. I felt fortunate to witness it so soon after its inception. If you don't feel something after seeing it, check your pulse.   v

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