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America’s government began shaming itself long before the ongoing, widely decried “war on terrorism” in Iraq.
But instead of sacrificing its own soldiers and the occasional Iraqi civilian, back in 1932, the chosen lambs were Southern black men.
What became vaguely — yet infamously — known as the Tuskegee Experiment was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). Initially scheduled to last for one year, but mercilessly stretching into four decades, the study involved 399 syphilis-infected Tuskegee, Ala., males. Never informing them that they had the disease and denying them treatment, the PHS allowed many of its subjects to unwittingly spread syphilis to their wives and, through impregnation, to their children. Ironically, the stated goal of the study had been to generate medical funding for rural citizens.
Phases Theatre Company ambitiously takes on this despicable chapter in history with the play, The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee. Written by Duane Chandler and directed by Debra Carter, the production is well-constructed both technically and thematically. Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee is, however, hindered by a lack of editing and excessive dialogue between characters.
Set in the early 1970s when media coverage of the experiment led to its abrupt termination, the play primarily focuses on the life of an apparently fictional character who has participated in the study. Douglas McCray gives a believable and outstanding performance as Art, but the script’s requirement that he withhold his recollections of the experiment is distracting. Instead of making it clear to the audience why Art is central to the story, the production meanders its way through the daily routines and casual motions he undergoes with old pals and fellow government guinea pigs, Speedy and Link. As a result, the engaging drama doesn’t begin until about an hour after the opening curtain, when Art reveals that he is still haunted by dreams 40 years after joining the study.
Largely told through flashbacks, Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee makes a few mistakes in makeup as well. For example, Art is still presented as the same bald-headed, gray-bearded old man he was in 1972 during scenes when he introduces himself to Tuskegee medical staff at age 30. Curiously, the role of the black nurse involved with the experiment, known in real life as Eunice Rivers, is made insignificant because of the production’s rarely seen Nurse Watters character. While Rivers was made fully aware of what the study involved and of the deception perpetrated against its subjects, she earned their trust and helped facilitate interaction with the researchers. By contrast, Nurse Watters is mainly relegated to the part of a doctor’s office assistant.
Despite any gaps or oversights in the production, Phases Theatre is to be applauded for tackling this subject — and in the spring no less — without any misplaced obligation to present it during Black History Month. Director Carter explains that she was “more determined than ever” to bring the play to a stage when she learned that Ernest Hendon, the last living man who participated in the study, died this year at age 96.
Other men who made the same mistake as Hendon by trusting a government agency that claimed to act on their behalf died much sooner, or suffered painful complications from syphilis. Not until 1997, when President Bill Clinton declared the experiment “profoundly, morally wrong,” had any of the nation’s policymakers fully acknowledged their devastating role.
At a time in history when the message is perhaps more vital than ever, The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee serves as a reminder that leadership can frequently mislead.
See The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Ends Sunday, April 11. Call 313-822-9530 for further information.
Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.