I cannot recommend this play without caveats. At least to Black people.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad play. As a matter of fact, it’s a very good play. It’s clever, well-written, timely, and it makes good use of unusual devices. The quality of the play is not the problem.
The problem is that it hurts.
How Blood Go is a play about medical racism, its past, and its continued effects on African Americans, which echoes the expansive HeLa by J. Nicole Brooks in content but not tone. Playwright Lisa Langford starts with a bit of germ warfare history—specifically General Cornwallis’s use of slaves to transport smallpox behind British lines during the American Revolution—and traces this American tradition of malpractice through the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, through the misdeeds of gynecology, to the future. Through all this, Langford concludes that disease of the body isn’t the only thing being purposefully injected into Black bodies—so is culpability for our own oppression.
How Blood Go
Through 4/23: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; mask-required performance Sat 4/1 3 PM; 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org or congosquaretheatre.org, $35-$50 ($20 students/seniors 62+)
The play opens with a chipper white fitness influencer addressing her camera and being—well—hella racist, using lingo usually only reserved for Black folks addressing other Black folks, chummily chiding her online viewers with stereotypes and stats about poor health outcomes linked to Black culture. It’s a shocking and darkly hilarious way to begin, and to her credit, actor Kayla Kennedy fully commits. One imagines that the first day must have been one of the most cringeworthy table reads in history.
It isn’t long before we discover that Kennedy’s character isn’t white but is actually a Black woman wearing a medical device that makes her appear white to medical professionals. We are then left to reckon with how plausible some of those previously shocking statements would sound coming out of the mouth of Black people or from medical professionals.
Jyreika Guest plays the Black mirror to Kennedy’s white version of the character of Quinntasia. Guest is engaging as the optimistic and chipper Quinntasia, who has signed up for a medical study, initially told that the device only tracks her biometrics. She’s lost a huge amount of weight and hopes to parlay that success into a career as a fitness coach to help other Black women get into shape. Eventually she learns the truth of her situation and recognizes how her positive health progress is attributed not to her own hard work but to her growing proximity to whiteness, proximity that is only conferred through the sale of her body.
The purpose of the medical device is to make Black patients appear white in order to ensure that white medical professionals automatically treat them with respect, guaranteeing positive health outcomes. The painful irony is that this so-called “breakthrough” is achieved not through solving racism in white people but by placing an additional burden on the oppressed.
I could not help but compare this storytelling device with another narrative that has been injected within the theater community, a narrative that Black critics must review Black plays because frequently white critics just can’t (or won’t) pick up what Black playwrights are putting down. As I steeled myself to watch yet another play about Black people being mistreated (after having come from seeing domestic abuse onstage the night before in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), I remained aware that I don’t personally want or need to experience this story onstage. After all, I can just walk into any doctor’s office to experience medical racism—like the time a dentist left me in agonizing pain over a long holiday weekend, only for another doctor to recognize that my swollen jaw and tooth were severely abscessed and needed immediate surgery.
I and nearly every other Black person have countless stories of having our pain dismissed, stories of family and friends who have died too young simply because a doctor wouldn’t see us. As I sat in the audience surrounded by other Black critics and a majority Black audience in the eternal feedback loop of once again dissecting and digesting our own pain, this play hurt quite a bit.
Langford’s play weaves the main storyline with a subplot involving two Black brothers, Bean (an earnest David Dowd) and Ace (the always exceptional Ronald L. Conner), whose story is set against the backdrop of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. As Bean willingly, yet unwittingly, submits his body for the horrific medical experiment as a vehicle for a better future, Ace puts his faith in medical education and learning that tragically takes him further away from helping his brother. Director Tiffany Fulson effectively leverages mirror moments to toggle between both stories concurrently, as well as between both the white and Black expressions of Quinntasia.
Yolonda Ross gives a hilarious and poignant performance as Quinntasia’s best friend Didi. Langford’s text underscores the heart-wrenching futility of two friends struggling to protect each other from forces they can’t overcome. Caron Buinis plays Anne, the head of the experiment, representing the cold entity of the medical professional who cannot be questioned. In another scene, Buinis plays another character who represents the exact opposite end of the spectrum, the audacity of her character evoking laughter from the audience—ironically and tragically evoking the same lack of seriousness that character would likely experience in a medical environment.
Ultimately, the play outlines some of the social roots of Black communities’ lack of confidence in the medical system and their preference for homeopathic remedies. This is particularly understandable given the racist treatment that continues today. This phenomenon is outlined tragically in documentaries like Aftershock, which examines the racial disparities in maternal death at childbirth. As the play jumps between timelines, we discover that both Bean and Ace’s hopes for the future are yoked to obtaining “a stone”—a headstone so as to not perish in an unmarked grave—to leave a legacy of existence, to pass a message to the next generation.
And perhaps that is Lisa Langford’s purpose in this play. After all, one of her ancestors was a victim of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. I imagine she wants to dredge up this pain even less than I want to receive it in the audience. Perhaps the intent of How Blood Go is to serve as a marker for all of those whose stories cannot be told—for those of us who show up in doctors’ offices day after day, hoping for healing yet only receiving ridicule, neglect—or worse. Perhaps this play represents an attempt to exorcise the stone around our collective necks—the stone that acknowledges that not only are we nearly guaranteed pain at the hands of medical “professionals,” but we will just as frequently be blamed for it. And unfortunately, at this moment in history, there is no escape from that cycle.
“Physician, heal thyself . . .” —Luke 4:23