Minutes before Adura Onashile’s solo act HeLa, as the visitors entered Sitara Studio in Mumbai’s Lower Parel, on February 15, they found the actor scribbling something, which looked like codes, on a board. Just before the third bell rang, she struck them out, barring one that read ‘HeLa’. In the field of cancer research, too, something similar had happened. Until Henrietta Lacks’s (known as HeLa) case, the cells of a number of cancer patients were not of much help. At The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA, in 1951, without seeking her permission, they had extracted her cells and her family never knew about it. These cells became the raw material for some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 100 years.
More than 60 years since Lacks passed away, Onashile puts the spotlight on her with the award-winning British play, HeLa, that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. Though the play is minimalistic in nature, Onashile narrates the story of HeLa using physical theatre, video projections and music. Onashile talks about discovering this true story and the process of dramatising it. Excerpts:
What drew you to the story of Henrietta Lacks? When you worked on it, did you think it would start a debate?
I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (its rights are with Oprah Winfrey and to be made into a movie by HBO) and it was the first time I came across the story. I was amazed that I had never heard of this woman whose cells had contributed so much to science. We made the show because I thought there might be other people who hadn’t heard of her too. Our hope was to tell as balanced a story as possible and if this sparked a debate then that was an added bonus.
How challenging was it to dramatise her story and condense it into an one-hour performance?
This show was made over two years, so there was time to present a work-in-progress, get feedback and go through a process of editing the script. The beauty of writing the script meant that over this period, I could continually make changes to the script even while we were performing. This meant that the script got tighter and tighter. There was a lot of material to share in a limited time frame and finding the right pace for the show as a whole became really important. Graham Eatough, the director, and I have worked closely through this process. There is a great deal of scientific material in the show and it was important to get the science behind it across without being too technical about it. This was potentially the hardest part of writing this script.
Did your writing make it easier for you to internalise Henrietta’s story?
Yes, the more research you do on someone, the longer you spend finding out about them and inhabiting them. This means that you get a good grounding on the character. However, Graham and I wanted to create a show where although she is the central character, we never actually hear her voice. She is talked about by the narrator, her daughter, her family and a doctor who treated her. We wanted to find a way to instill her absence from public consciousness in the audience’s mind, because this is one of the saddest aspects of the story.
Are you dabbling with projects other than HeLa?
The international tour of HeLa is the main focus of this year but I will be developing a couple of other projects in the meantime. HeLa was the first piece I have written for theatre and because it’s a true story, I had to rely on archives and documentary material. This gives the script a particular style. I’m keen to explore other styles of writing, so that’s my next challenge.