Painted Red is a Cell of a Play

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Painted Red ran at the Shelter Studio 54 until April 27th.  This writer saw it only days before its close. I am sure some of you heard about the heroine in the play but I can imagine many more of you know nothing about Henrietta Lacks whose living cells was a panacea for the world of medicine in this true life tale.

“Painted Red” tells the story of Lacks as her life progressed from the Tobacco farm to Baltimore, Md., where the family moved in hopes of seeing better times. Tara Taylor does a fine job portraying Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who was the unwitting source of what became known as the HeLa cell line.  Since John Hopkins was Lacks only choice of a nearby hospital that accepted people of color in the 1950s, Henrietta went there after falling ill. Dr. Gey (Alan Thurston) discovered a lump in her cervix and cut off a small part of the tumor forwarding it to the pathology lab.  The prognosis was that Henrietta had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix.  This was bad news for the mother of 5.

Painted Red was written and directed by Cynthia Stephens and most of the supporting cast played multiple characters, so I will list the Painted Red cast herewith: Michael Broadhurst, Jeff Burchfield, John Cannon, Jeffrey Allen Desalu, Jamyl Dobson, Milton Elliott, Kevin Gordon, Tiffany Nichole Greene, Deaon Griffin-Pressley, Sahirah Johnson, Ro Milner, Liz Morgan, Waleed Richardson, Tony Robinson and Rocky Friedman Vargas.

Lacks received treatment for her cancer via sewn in place radium tube inserts that were removed several days later.  Henrietta was released from the hospital and told to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta's cervix were removed—a healthy part and a cancerous part.  This was done unbeknownst to Lacks and without her permission.  Cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells eventually became the HeLa (initials taken from her first and last name) immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.

Henrietta’s condition worsened, making traveling to her appointments a hardship, so Henrietta asked to be admitted to the hospital where she remained until her death.  The cancer had spread throughout her body and Henrietta was in significant pain, unable to even make it to the window to view her family standing below.  To add insult to injury the doctors discovered Henrietta had developed gonorrhea, a venereal disease passed on to her by her husband. Meanwhile, the doctors secretly continued to experiment on Ms. Lacks keeping it secret from her family.  Realizing her impending death, Henrietta begged her family and friends to protect and care for her children.  In the play, Painted Red, family and friends did agree to care for Henrietta’s children but sadly after Henrietta’s death, it would be her very family who would abuse and prey on her children.

Henrietta Lacks’ died at age 31 of uremic poisoning leaving her husband and children devastated. After her death, her family continued to struggle unaware that Henrietta’s immortal cells lived on and were being cloned and utilized by doctors throughout the world, netting huge profits for John Hopkins and medical science. 

While conducting research in his lab, George Gey, discovered that Henrietta's cells were unlike other cells.  Hers did something scientists had never seen before: They remained alive and grew, which was miraculous for doctors who ordinarily could not keep cells alive past a few days. Gey isolated a cell from Henrietta, duplicated it and started a cell line.  Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal cell line, so doctors were able to conduct multiple experiments such as polio research wherein in 1954, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio. The cells were put into mass production in the first ever cell production factory.

HeLa cells have been used in a variety of tests such as human sensitivity to cosmetics, glue, tape and other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of Lack’s cells.  There are nearly 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells. The HeLa cells have also been beneficial to HIV-AIDS Research.

In 1973, the Lack’s family discovered John Hopkins' deception when a scientist called to ask for blood samples from the family as part of a genetic experiment. For the last 40 years, researchers continued to cultivate millions, maybe billions of Lacks' cells, while her family sought information, to gain a portion of the proceeds and control of Lack’s cell line.  At last knowledge, the National Institutes of Health worked out an agreement to give partial control and return of the cell line, but no compensation to the family.  However, the medical establishment must now get permission from the family for further use of Henrietta Lacks’ cell line. 

For further information about the life of Henrietta Lacks, interested parties can read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" written by Rebecca Skloot.  I do not know if the playwright and producers of "Painted Red" will again present the show at another time, but if so, please go see it.  It's a turn in the pages of African American history well worth discovering and rediscovering.


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