Play tackles Story Of Woman Whose Cells Were Stolen For Medical Research And Cures

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Henrietta Lacks


Cynthia Stephens learned well the value of giving back to whence one comes.

A speech pathologist for the deaf, with degrees from City College (CUNY) and New York University, Dr. Stephens was an accomplished dancer and performed around the country with dance companies such as Egbe Obirin Nigerian Dance Co., Louines Haitian Dance Co., Godfry Sakifio Ghanaian Dance Company, as well as the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.             

Somewhere along her journey, she realized the numerous stories not being told of the struggles, as well as the joys, in the Black experience. To help fill in the gap, in 1994 she founded “Hear Me Now Project” for deaf African American children in Bridge Hampton, New York.  Along with a small grant, Cynthia funded this summer weekend project. 

The project was free for economically disadvantaged children, with and without disabilities.  The project was well attended and offered dance, ballet, yoga and drumming.  However, Dr. Stephens found that there was a lack of suitable material giving positive images for children of color.  At this juncture, Dr.  Stephens took pen to hand and began writing stories children of color could relate to and take pride in.

Eventually, pressure was put on the group for the kids to perform. This was Cynthia’s impetus for writing and producing her first play – “The Princess and the Golden Yam”.   The setting is a fictitious West African Village.  It’s a musical fairy tale about good and evil.  “Princess” opened in Hudson, New York about seven years ago and featured this year’s Academy Award winning actress in a supporting role, Lupita Nyong’o.  

Dr. Stephens reflected on Lupita as a consummate professional, and her performance as a harbinger for things to come.  She was not at all surprised when Lupita received this honor. This is a “Disney” type family story the entire family can enjoy.        

Dr. Stephens’ second play was a historical production about the life of Harriet Tubman.  She says there is so much false information on Harriet Tubman that she felt obligated to do what she could to put forth the truth about this courageous freedom fighter. 

She spoke about the oral tradition of passing the history of people of African ancestry, the validity of that tradition some would like to deny. This dramatic musical production features Negro spirituals and is named “19 Secrets”; acknowledging the number of trips Harriet Tubman took back to free other enslaved Africans.  It played at the Shetler Theatre 54 in Manhattan.

Dr. Stephens founded Sacred Ground Productions LLC in 2007 to create a forum for people of African descent to tell their own stories from this own perspectives. 

In 2011 while en route to North Carolina from New York, Dr. Stephens stopped at an airport bookstore.  She was attracted to a brightly colored book, picked it up and leafed through it.  It was the story of Henrietta Lacks, an indigent African American tobacco farmer, stricken with cervical cancer who sought treatment at what is now a world renowned medical center. 

Henrietta’s cells were taken from her body without her permission.  Because Henrietta’s cells had the unique ability for replication, they were used for scientific research, and are still being used till this day --in vitro fertilization was made possible by the use of Henrietta’s cells.  

Her cells became known as HeLa cells: "By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk's new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory. In 1955 HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned.

Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta's cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for 'research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits'. HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells."

(On July 9, 1990, the Supreme Court in California ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.)

After reading of the exploitation of this poor woman who had moved her family to Baltimore for a better life, whose family was left almost destitute while the medical community made huge profits from the use of her cells, Dr. Stephens knew she had to give voice to the family.  

This voice can be heard loud and clear in the showcase production of “Painted Red” – A story of profound love, the tragedy of loss and the redemptive power of compassion dealing with Henrietta Lacks ordeal.  

Written by Cynthia Stephens and presented by Sacred Ground Productions, “Painted Red” opens on April 17th at the Shetler Theatre 54, 244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor (between Broadway and 8th Avenues), and closes on Sunday, April 27th.  Tickets are $18 @ SMARTTIX.COM 212-868-4444

Any of these productions will surely be food for thought and nourishment for the soul. 

Editor's Note: This is the kind of play that needs to be supported by all. Please order your tickets and also share this story with friends, relatives and loved ones.


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