Theatre: An apology from the President

A scandalous 40-year medical experiment on African-American men prompted David Feldshuh to write a play. He tells Julia Pascal how, in turn, it prompted an official apology
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE STUNNING revelations in David Feldshuh's provocative drama Miss Evers' Boys made Clinton say "sorry". Not that the scandal at the heart of the play has anything to do with the President's sex life. Instead, it shows America's 40-year abuse of black men who suffered deliberate medical neglect of their venereal disease.

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male surveyed, but refused to treat, syphilitic Afro-Americans in Alabama, even after the discovery of penicillin. The play was presented with the President's Award for a programme exploring vital social issues, received 12 Emmy nominations for the TV version, and was nominated for the Pulitzer prize.

Its author, David Feldshuh, trained as an actor here at LAMDA in the Sixties, but quickly shifted careers and started directing, and soon became Associate Artistic Director of Minneapolis's Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. Then, aged 32, he changed career again, and went to medical school, supporting himself via his directing career. Today he combines the two, practicing emergency medicine and holding the Artistic Directorship of the Center for Theatre Arts, and Professor of Theatre at Cornell University.

It is Miss Evers' Boys, however, which has brought him the greatest acclaim. He wrote 34 drafts and put the play through several workshops over the course of six years. It was picked out for development at Robert Redford's Sundance Centre by director Irene Lewis, and it's easy to see why. Feldshuh's humour and compassion for the men who suffered this fatal experiment simply lifts the play off the page.

It clearly unites the two passions of Feldshuh's life. But was he, as a middle-class, white, New York Jew, criticised for writing about the agonising experience of Afro-American tenant farmers? And isn't he courting controversy by portraying his central character, an Afro-American nurse, as the prime traitor to her people?

The historical experiment, to prove that black men suffer syphilis in the same way as white men, was a distorted notion of racial equality, masking profound racism. Feldshuh clearly shows Nurse Evers collaborating with a medical coterie determined to watch their black patients' deterioration through blindness and dementia. Miss Evers is seen as the intermediary, translating medical jargon into an Alabama argot to deceive the tenant farmers. The very act of translating, and the ability to pass from one American culture to another, leads to the patients' destruction. As Feldshuh says, "When you translate, you have real power to change the dynamics of the vulnerable."

One of the most distressing scenes in the play is when the farmers learn about antibiotics, but are denied the chance to be cured. Nurse Evers actually pulls her subjects out of the penicillin queue. Feldshuh acknowledges that a few people were offended: "Some said, `How dare you show an Afro- American woman betraying Afro-American men', and, `How dare you show a black nurse and a black doctor colluding with the government initiative to let these men die?' But this was a minority. The majority were thankful that the experiment was so widely exposed." After all, this was not a national policy like Hitler's Nazi doctors, but a hitherto hidden event that happened in the backwater of Alabama.

He has clearly thought a lot about whether, as a white man, he had a right to take on this story. "This is a question of authorship. Do you judge a piece by the writer or by the work itself?" Perhaps surprisingly, he points out that in the US, the debate has moved beyond the politically correct position of damning writers who are not of the ethnicity they describe. He links the argument to the question of colour-blind casting. "Do you have to be a Dane to play Hamlet? The real question for any author is: Do you have the sensitivity to write this?"

The character of Miss Evers is based on the real Nurse Rivers, who died before Feldshuh could meet her. However, the archivist at Tuskegee gave him a taped interview conducted at the end of her life. Two years after the tests stopped, in l972, she received an award from the federal government, yet Rivers said how much she loved these men. Feldshuh does not blame her, but sees her behaviour as "moral blindness", which spurred him to write the play.

"I read the comprehensive testimony, and the medical history, and I asked myself: what is there that is dramatic behind all this? Then I realised it was the character of the nurse. I wanted to create a role for an African- American as a tragic heroine. Someone like Oedipus, who discovers a terrible secret which can never be forgotten."

`Miss Evers' Boys' previews tonight at the Barbican (0171-638 8891)