Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review - Miss Evers' Boys (Red Fern Theatre Company)

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photos by Nathan Johnson

In 1932, the US Government came to Tuskeegee with a promise of free medical attention for nearly four hundred African American sharecroppers who suffered from "bad blood." These men were unknowingly part of the Tuskeegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male, an attempt to understand the progression of the disease. For the forty years that the study was active, and despite the commonplace use of penicillin to treat syphillis in the late 1940s, these men went untreated, until a leak brought the story to national attention in the 1970s.

This shameful chapter of American history is the basis for David Feldshuh's Miss Evers' Boys. The Miss Evers of the title is Eunice Evers (Nedra McClyde), an African American nurse who comes to Tuskeegee with the good news that Uncle Sam is willing to pay for medical care of anyone who is willing to be part of a study on the treatment of "bad blood." Because she is not an outsider and is passionate about her mission to help, men who would normally not trust the government agree to be tested for the study. Among those are a group of song-and-dance men, Caleb Humphries (Garrett Lee Hendricks), Willie Johnson (Jason Donnell Bush), Hodman Bryan (Marty Austin Lamar), and Ben Washington (David Pendleton). Charmed by Miss Evers, whom they come to see as a good luck charm, the group christen themselves Miss Evers' Boys, and win several of their song-and-dance competitions.

Nurse Evers truly believes in what she is doing, and under the seemingly benign auspices of Drs. Douglas (Alex C. Ferrill) and Brodus (Evander Duck), she gives the men the best treatment available at that time, mercury rub and injections of arsenic. And the men do get better, helping to cement Nurse Evers' image as savior. But Douglas and Brodus have other plans. They want to mimic an earlier study, the Oslo Experiments, to see what the effects of the disease would be if left untreated. They order Nurse Evers to begin providing placebos.

Despite her misgivings, Nurse Evers agrees and takes the first step down a very slippery slope that leads to betrayal and death.

The cast of Miss Evers' Boys is outstanding. McClyde is particularly noteworthy as Nurse Evers. Watching as she makes compromise after compromise, until, in an extremely moving scene with Pendleton as the dying Ben Washington, she finally realizes just how far she's gone, is a highlight of the play. Bush, Hendricks, Lamar, and Pendleton do an exceptional job as Miss Evers' Boys. Not only are they remarkable actors, but they are pretty good musicians as well. Bush does a terrific job in the athletically challenging role of Willie Johnson, the dancer of the group. He captures Willie's wonder at the future that is laid out at his feet, and the anger over the crushed dreams that he is evetually left with. Hendricks is particuarly strong as the passionate Caleb Humphries, the one man who is able to save himself. His scenes with McClyde are very moving, as the two have wonderful chemistry. Rounding out the cast are Duck and Ferrill as the doctors running the experiment. No cartoon villians, these are men who truly believe that what they are doing will benefit mankind as a whole. Duck and Ferrill both create well-balanced characters, who have made peace with the ethical gray area they have chosen to inhabit.

Director Melanie Moyer Williams has made the most of Feldshuh's script, her talented cast, and the tiny space at the Shell Theater. Scenic designer Adrienne Kapalko takes a less-is-more approach to the scenery, and the results are very effective. Another nice touch is the live music provided by pianist Laura Anderson.

Miss Evers' Boys is a powerful play about a terrible event. Like the best art, it both teaches and entertains. The Red Fern Theatre Company has done a marvellous job with this production.

Miss Evers' Boys
Written by David Feldshuh
Directed by Melanie Moyer Williams
Choreographer: Michael Blevins
Muscial Director - Stephen Anthony Elkins
Scenic Designer - Adrienne Kapalko
Ryan Metzler – Lighting Design
Costume Design - Ryan J. Moller
Composer - Kristen Lee Rosenfeld
Pianist - Laura Anderson
Stage Manager - Laura Luciano
Assistant Director - Caroline von Kuhn
Image Artist - Ashley Yaraghi

Featuring: Jason Donnell Bush (Willie Johnson), Evander Duck (Dr.Eugene Brodus), Alex C. Ferrill (Dr. John Douglas), Garrett Lee Hendricks (Caleb Humphries), Marty Austin Lamar (Hodman Bryan), Nedra McClyde (Eunice Evers), David Pendleton (Ben Washington)

The Shell Theater
300 W. 43rd Street, 4th Floor

March 19-April 5

For tickets call 212-352-3101.