Hard on the heels of the closing of Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial, theatrically heightened Slave Play, at the New York Theatre Workshop, comes another drama about ante-bellum slavery, Charly Evon Simpson’s Behind the Sheet, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Persuasive in subject matter, writing, and performance, it’s a mostly naturalistic, fictionalized account of an actual Southern doctor, J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” who founded America’s first women’s hospital in New York. His experimental surgeries on female slaves led to a successful technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a condition associated with obstructed childbirth.
|Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel,.|
As a slave owner, he’s able to carry out his experimental surgeries on his pregnant slaves, whom he also trains to assist in his anesthesia-free operations, which require that the patient be held down during the painful procedure. Opium was provided only after the operation. Black women, you see, were considered to be more tolerant of pain than whites (an erroneous belief that some, apparently, still hold.) George’s tunnel-vision focus on his goals precludes his being overly concerned with his patients’ comfort.
|Nia Calloway, Joel Ripka, Naomi Lorrain, Stephen James Anthony, Cristina Pitter. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Despite being lauded for his scientific breakthroughs, which also included the invention of the Sims speculum, the actual Dr. Sims ultimately was criticized for the shaky ethics of his 1840s practices in experimenting on the bodies of African-American women; their level of consent continues to be argued in the field of medical ethics. Simpson’s play puts its thumb on the negative side of the argument. Whether Sims’s subjects were willing or not, Behind the Sheets honors them as unsung women whose anguish contributed to women’s health.
|Joel Ripka, Stephen James Anthony. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The play focuses chiefly on George and the beautiful slave Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), for whose pregnancy George is responsible. As happened to her historical counterpart (the father of whose child isn't known), she undergoes dozens of surgeries before George has his eureka moment. Philomena also serves as the personal servant of George’s neglected wife, Josephine (Megan Tusing), whom she dresses in a scene reminiscent of one in Gone with the Wind, absent the corset-tying.
|Megan Tusing, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Naturally, Simpson takes various liberties in altering history for dramatic effect. For example, the three women he named in his writings (Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy) have become five in the play, Philomena, Betty (Nia Calloway), Sally (Cristina Pitter), Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams), and Dinah (Jehan O. Young).
Side issues involve George’s relationship with Josephine (Megan Tusing), Philomena’s with a gentle, amorous slave named Lewis (Shawn Randall), and, of course those tying the various female slaves together, one of them based on making perfume from flowers to hide the smell of their effusions. Finally successful, George has his moment in the limelight when he addresses a meeting of plantation owners to tout his discovery, not least of which are its economic benefits: “Your slaves will once again be profitable.”
|Shawn Randall, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Lawrence E. Moten III’s neutral set consists of a planked platform whose slats allow lights—thanks to lighting designer Adam Honoré—to shine from beneath at crucial moments. A soiled, scuffed, off-white upstage wall, gaslight sconces (shouldn’t they be candles?) hanging here and there, is fitted with translucent doors that sometimes serve as screens for silhouetted images of physically distressed women. A minimum of furniture—chiefly a large table used for the surgeries—and a cabinet for medical equipment, serve for all scenes.
|Josh Ripka, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Costumer Sarah Woodham does a fine job recreating authentic-looking, earth-toned, ante-bellum clothing (including Josephine’s underwear), and Fan Zhang creates a brilliant soundscape of heavily amplified percussion and thrumming effects.
|Stephen James Anthony, Cristina Pitter, Naomi Lorrain, Nia Calloway, Joel Ripka. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
These sounds mark key transitions used by the sensitive director, Colette Robert, to interrupt the generally naturalistic proceedings with rhythmic, stylized movements. She also introduces occasional tableaus, or keeps actors frozen as others in the following scene act around them. All of the acting is surprisingly restrained, almost more conversational than theatrical, which works--up to a point. For all its realistic ambience, the 90-minute, intermissionless production’s overall tone remains so low key that—especially once its main points have scored—it eventually begins to drag.
|Amber Reauchean Williams, Jehan O. Young. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
During the curtain call, the actors playing the female slaves step forth and, in turn, recite the historical aftermath of the events depicted, like the onscreen notes one often sees following a fact-inspired movie. After noting that no monument to the women on whom Sims operated exists, everyone leaves but Naomi Lorrain, the admirable actress who plays Philomena. As the lights fade, her searching eyes penetrate you almost as piercingly as what her character has gone through.
Ensemble Studio Theatre
545 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through February 3