Theater review by Diane Snyder
They were the subjects of a medical experiment and had no control over what happened to their bodies. But the pain endured by the enslaved women operated on by J. Marion Sims—the 19th-century American doctor who became known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology”—led to a breakthrough in obstetric surgery, and it’s the inspiration for Charly Evon Simpson’s harrowing new play, Behind the Sheet.
Mixing fictional characters with facts from Sims’s life and work, Simpson delivers an evenhanded portrait of George Barry (Joel Ripka), a white doctor and plantation owner in 1840s Alabama as ignorant about the feelings of African-Americans as he is about the inner lives of women. Although married, he has impregnated one of his slaves, Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), who helps him with his work until a lengthy labor leaves her with a fistula that causes incontinence.
Philomena joins other stricken slaves whom the doctor has subjected to surgeries without anesthesia—Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams), Sally (Cristina Pitter) and Dinah (Jehan O. Young)—while another woman, Betty (Nia Calloway), takes her place in the household. It’s at this point that the play reaches its pinnacle. Directed with subtle force by Colette Robert, Behind the Sheet shows these women trying to heal by sharing their suffering. Their pain is not just physical, despite the multiple procedures they have endured; they’re also mourning the loss of children, who either died in childbirth or had to be left behind when the women were sent to the doctor to be cured.
With a sizable cast of nine actors, some playing multiple roles, the plot sprawls off into too many directions; the scenes about the doctor’s marital life and scientific experimentation aren’t as involving as those that center on his subjects. But it’s reassuring that, although the women fear that no one will remember them, Simpson has seen to it that they won’t be forgotten.
Ensemble Studio Theatre (Off-Off Broadway). By Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.