Goodman Theatre

Miss Evers’ Boys is the kind of muckraking Shaw used to call an “unpleasant play.” It’s tempting to dismiss its subject as a scandal that happened long ago and couldn’t happen again–as if there were a statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.

Unfortunately there’s still a need for such “unpleasantness.” Recently the Trib reported that Zairean children were secretly tested with a potentially lethal AIDS vaccine in a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The protection afforded subjects by “informed consent” is rare in Zaire. So are civil suits for wrongful death, as scientists undoubtedly knew.

The ugly facts of Miss Evers’ Boys are these: Starting in 1932 hundreds of black men suffering from syphilis in Macon County, Alabama, answered government advertisements offering help for their “bad blood.” They were treated with a combination of mercury and arsenic and enjoyed an 85 percent rate of cure. Money for the treatment soon ran out, but the doctors running the program didn’t want to abandon their experiment: instead they renamed it “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” and began giving their subjects placebos.

The Tuskegee study provided its guinea pigs no opportunity for informed consent. It just watched them die and recorded the results–“research” that required the slow killing of many men. Incredibly, even when penicillin became widely available, in 1946, the subjects were not treated. The study persisted for 40 years, until a 1972 congressional inquiry halted the uncontrolled experiment. As late as 1969 an advisory panel concluded that the aging patients should not be given penicillin, citing the rare possibility that longtime syphilis sufferers might succumb to the potentially fatal Herxheimer reaction.

Playwright David Feldshuh is both artistic director of Cornell University’s Center for Theatre Arts and a doctor of emergency medicine at Tompkins Community Hospital in Ithaca, New York. He faced two challenges: how to keep the play from dwindling into a ranting expose, and how to draw the audience into a story where something vital doesn’t happen–the patients never receive their penicillin.

Wisely Feldshuh chose to put a human face on an inhuman event; he focuses on the semibiographical characters of public-health nurse Eunice Evers and four of her patients. The play opens and closes with her (hypothetical) testimony to a 1972 Senate subcommittee; the bulk of the play is flashbacks to 1932 and 1946. The patients’ illness and their emotions follow the same course–as one character says, “You get it, then forget it, then regret it.”

The real Miss Evers was a plowhorse, the invaluable go-between who translated the orders of the government’s white field physician into terms the sharecroppers could grasp. Miss Evers’ “boys” here are four men who share a love of dancing and a deep–and fatal–trust in their kindly nurse. No case histories here–Feldshuh depicts them in warm detail. We see how easily Miss Evers enters their lives, encouraging their hoofing and taking them in her car to dance competitions, “gillies.” Diverse in age and spirit (and tagged by Dickensian quirks), they are Willie Johnson, hard-dancing, fun-loving, and obsessed with the magical word “aspiration”; Hodman Bryan, whose leitmotiv is “obligation”; Ben Washington, illiterate but hungry for knowledge; and Caleb Humphries, a big, religious man who wants to be a preacher.

Initially suspicious of the government’s intentions, the patients agree to be part of the study when Miss Evers holds out several carrots–free examinations, $50 worth of burial insurance, free lunches, and a chance to ride in her green government-issue Oldsmobile. (In 1946 the government awarded each man $14–a dollar for every year served in the study; poststudy litigation brought the few survivors about ten thousand times that amount.)

As we watch Miss Evers soothe Caleb through the agony of a spinal tap, we measure her care for them; as we watch her track down Caleb and Willie in a Birmingham railroad station and talk them out of getting penicillin, we measure her betrayal. The Miss Evers we see is a weak woman caught in the crossfire; by choosing not to choose, she lets terrible things take their course.

Though Miss Evers’ Boys is always compassionate and seldom condescending, it suffers from the excesses of good intentions. The patients’ one-note personalities barely change over 40 years, except for some growing disillusionment. Ironically, as much as he’s trying not to make his characters into case histories, Feldshuh ends up charting their illnesses like a field doctor. And it’s strange that in the 1946 scene no reference is made to the recent Nuremberg findings on Nazi death-camp experiments.

Feldshuh can’t seem to end his play; he’s so afraid we haven’t gotten the point–that the Tuskegee study was cruel–that he just keeps repeating it. The play’s final confrontations between Miss Evers and two of her patients repeat what we already know. That stage time might have been better spent looking hard at why Miss Evers betrayed her nurse’s oath.

These shortfalls aside, Miss Evers’ Boys remains well worth this crisp Goodman Theatre midwest premiere. Played on a dramatically raked stage beneath Michael Olich’s stylized wooden schoolhouse, this stirring staging by Kenny Leon, artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, drives home the endangered humanity of all concerned.

That vulnerability is most obvious in Celeste Williams’s tortured nurse. Williams stretches Miss Evers on a very slow rack; her character’s clearly caught in an ugly bind. (Even so, her pivotal scene–talking the patients out of taking penicillin–could be played more darkly.)

Patrick Clear as the white Dr. Douglas and Ernest Perry Jr. as the black hospital administrator depict all too well the banality of evil–the moral bankruptcy of doctors for whom other people’s pain remains antiseptically abstract. Though Feldshuh gives Dr. Douglas a moment of tenderness–he helps Willie with a new dance step–it only makes Douglas’s later betrayal more loathsome.

The four farmers forge a strong ensemble. Though they’re pawns, they don’t forfeit their dignity. In one terrific scene–Caleb’s spinal tap–Danny Johnson makes the audience feel the needle too; Caleb endures the pain by testifying to the Lord. When Frederick Charles Canada as Ben learns how to write his first name, the delight is contagious. Donald Griffin as Hodman, who reverts to folk medicine and calls on the moon for help, drives home the men’s desperation for a cure.

The most devastating measure of this crime, however, is its effect on Willie Johnson. Tab Baker plays the healthy Willie with such high spirits, such gallivanting joy that his decline into crippled waste seems the ultimate convicting evidence.