Theatre: Paradox in black and white

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"THE TUSKEGEE Study of Untreated Syphilis In The Male Negro, 1932- 1972" - the project's very name strikes a chill, for how do you monitor such effects, unless you deliberately withhold treatment? David Feldshuh's powerful play, Miss Evers' Boys, examines how this real-life study arose, the flawed thinking that sustained it for so long, and the strange paradox of how it was a black nurse, genuinely devoted to the men being used as guinea pigs, who played a vital role in holding the group together.

We first see Eunice Evers (Lorey Hayes) in 1972 giving evidence to the US Senate: the play shuttles between the chronological re-enactment of her career and her witness-stand commentary. It all begins so positively. Miss Evers arrives in Macon County, Alabama, to assist in a new government- funded health programme, part of which involves testing and treating the local men for "bad blood" or syphilis. Attractive, good-humoured, intimate with the culture, she's a superb intermediary between the white doctor and the understandably suspicious blacks who love her, and even name their gillee-dancing team "Miss Evers' Boys" after her.

But then the money dries up and the white doctor persuades his black counterpart and Miss Evers that the best way of being first in line for the next funds is by keeping Washington interested in disease. Specifically, by instigating a study that, in using living subjects, will surpass the Oslo Project that catalogued untreated syphilis in bodily remains. The consent of the men is never sought and they are tricked right down the line, getting told that the excruciating spinal taps they are given for research purposes are healing "back shots".

You sit watching Martin L Platt's beautifully acted production in an agony of frustration because at each stage where the Tuskegee Project might have been brought to a halt, the white doctor artfully plays on the fears and hopes of his colleagues. 1946, for example, sees the crucial advent of penicillin which, in curing white and black equally, gets rid of the racial slur around syphilis more decisively than the Project, in one of its aims, could ever do.

The play is admirable in the way that it pulls you into the nurse's dilemma while not relaxing its stringency about her well meaning, yet not blameless role. There's a wonderful scene towards the end when Tab Baker's excellent Willie Johnson, the eager little gillee-dancer whose "body was his freedom", limps in stiffly with a stick to confront the doctors and nurses in 1972. "Watch," he brusquely orders them, and he plays a record that he used to leap about to all those years ago. His immobility, but for his head nodding out the rhythm, is a rebuke of piercing eloquence.