Please experience ‘Behind the Sheet’

Linda Armstrong | 2/7/2019, 3:50 p.m.
Hello my people. You only have until Feb. 17 to see “Behind the Sheet,” a powerful story that sheds a ...
Joel Ripka and Naomi Lorrain Jeremy Daniel photo

Hello my people. You only have until Feb. 17 to see “Behind the Sheet,” a powerful story that sheds a blaring light on a story most of us are not familiar with, but that needs to be told!

The show tells the story of a white man named Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the Father of Gynecology. This man had a statue in Central Park to honor his memory. But what people don’t realize is that this doctor, who in the play is referred to as Master George, used Black slaves to find out about the inner workings of a woman’s body. He performed experiments on Black slaves who had been pregnant, went through several days of labor and normally lost the baby. He did surgical experiments on these women, without the benefit of anesthesia and while they were held down by two other women, with no concern as to the pain they would endure.

This sick doctor believed that Black female slaves had a higher threshold for pain. When the surgery was over, he would give them opioids for the pain; when those wore off, they were on their own, and in constant pain. The doctor, who was also a plantation owner, would often impregnate his slaves and these were often the next ones to be experimented on.

The place that these slave women were kept was referred to as the “sick house.” In the play, we follow the horrific experiences of Mary, Dinah, Sally, Philomena and Betty. Some slaves were Master George’s, others he paid to experiment on. These women lived together and shared their pain and their personal stories of suffering. They realized very clearly that Master George was experimenting on them and that they weren’t getting better, but they had no choice in the matter. They were his property and he could do with them as he liked.

With all that this story shares, I think one of the most upsetting details is that when anesthesia is discovered, this doctor willfully chooses to only use it on his white female patients.

This story is a tribute to the 10-12 enslaved women whose bodies were used for science, as this butcher made discoveries at their expense. This production is the brilliant, courageous and provocative work of Charly Evon Simpson. It stars a tremendously talented ensemble which includes Naomi Lorrain; Amber Reacuchean Williams, Jehan O. Young; Cristina Pitter; Nia Calloway; Joel Ripka, Megan Tusing and Stephen James Anthony. The direction by Colette Robert is thought-provoking; this play moves the heart and soul. You will learn about the atrocities these slaves faced, you will see the strength they had deep within, you will see how something so horrible ended up being a binding factor for these women and you will see the unfair ways in which Black women and Black love were viewed. To make sure you understand the story of this real-life doctor, the program has biographical information for your perusal. This production is so well put together, the playwright even recommended a list of books for audience members to read so they could learn more.

This play is possible because of a collaboration between the Ensemble Studio Theatre at 545 W 52nd St., and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the EST/Sloan Project—both of which advocate and supports works that deal with the sciences and a writer’s ability to give a better understanding of science to the public. The Ensemble Studio Theatre is between 10th and 11th Avenue in Manhattan, but believe me, it’s worth the walk. This play is 90 straight minutes and it is a hard hitter, but something that will leave you enlightened and proud to acknowledge the sacrifices that these slave women made in the name of science, while also acknowledging the cruelty and indifference that was shown to Black women in the 1800s.

For more information, visit www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org.