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

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor