Director Alric Davis’ rendition of the classic play Miss Evers’ Boys written by David Feldshuh debuted to kick off Black History Month in February. Though the play is a fictionalized account of the Tuskegee Experiments, it is based on the real-life Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male that took place in Macon County, Alabama from 1932 to 1972. Hundreds of impoverished black men suffering from syphilis aka ‘bad blood’ were given mercury and arsenic, a hit or miss treatment that could either cure or kill, until funding ran out and they were unknowingly kept in the program as guinea pigs even when the surefire cure of penicillin was discovered.
While Feldshuh’s script altered facts for dramatic effect, it still included many historical accuracies. In real life, the study initially involved 600 black men – 399 of whom had syphilis and 201 who did not and left in its wake 40 wives who contracted the disease, and 19 children born with congenital syphilis. The heinous study, which was slated to run six months but lasted four decades, led to federal laws and regulations requiring the protection of human subjects in studies involving them. In 1993, President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States to victims of the experiment.
This historical drama explores topics such as medical ethics, race, classism, and a myriad of emotionally poignant issues that propelled it from the small stage to the small screen with Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne starring in the two-hour long 1997 TV movie version. Davis’ approximately three-hour stage production left no stone unturned in presenting the plight of the men from their initial hesitance to building trust to the end of the ordeal, which for some was death, and for others, a bittersweet escape from it.
Davis is pursuing his masters of fine arts at the University of Houston and holds a bachelor in fine arts from Howard University with a concentration in musical theatre and playwriting. He is the artistic director of the Bayou Theatre Company, founded in 2013. His stellar cast consisted of Shun Lauren (Willie), Ty Fisher (Ben), Marvin Young (Caleb), and Trey Lewis (Hodman) who brought a dynamic energy and vulnerable innocence to the roles of the men under the care of the nurse who they trusted with their lives–literally. In the play, Nurse Eunice Evers (Shundranieka Ross) is faced with the distressing decision to tell the men the truth of their condition or to follow her superiors (Dr. Brodus played by James West III and Dr. Douglas played by Jeff Dorman) in the name of what she sees as her professional duty.
Under his direction, Davis took the time to establish the bond between the characters so as the arc and climax came you were emotionally invested and felt for them. Ross played such a convincing role as the innocent and overly-dedicated nurse that to watch her deceive the men was particularly frustrating, especially since her character was based on real-life nurse Eunice Rivers Laurie who the government hired to recruit the black men and keep them in the study while their syphilis went purposely untreated in the name of science.
Cast member Shun Lauren gave a heartwrenching rendition as the audience watched Willie “the best double fly stepper” in town decline from agile dancer with dreams to hobbling cripple. Lauren’s role was a particular physically challenging one, and by the play’s arc you could practically hear his bones crack as he adeptly played a character struggling to deal with the side effects of his disease. Throwing salt in the wound was that he could have been saved from this fate if he hadn’t been dissuaded from taking penicillin by the nurse who he trusted even more than his longtime friends. The play did allow for some retribution at the end by allowing the surviving men to face their wrongdoers, but no amends can ever truly be made for robbing someone’s life and livelihood from them.
Miss Evers’ Boys ran from February 16 to March 4th at Pearl Theater located on 14803 Park Almeda Dr. in Houston. The venue provided an intimate space for the production, which allowed audience goers to feel intimately drawn into the characters’ lives.
“The Pearl Theater opened 6 years ago and it has grown to be a strong force in our local community,” said Renee van Nifterik, founder and artistic director of the Pearland Theatre Guild. “We have watched audiences steadily grow. I believe this is due to our focus on providing a well-balanced season with ever-increasing production values and bringing talented performers from all over the greater Houston area.”
The theatre is under the auspices of the Pearland Theatre Guild, which was formed with a mission to enrich cultural life in the area through providing residents the opportunity to attend and participate in a variety of quality theatrical works.