HeLa (4 stars)

This article is from 2013


Ethics and racism in a dance for survival

In 1951, young black mother Henrietta Lacks was refused proper cancer treatment in a segregated hospital, but doctors took stem samples without her permission or prior knowledge. Two months later, she died. Iron Oxide's play, a one-woman show, examines this unscrupulous episode.

Part lecture, part theatre and brimming with insight, Adura Onashile gives a performance that is as spirited as it is heartbreaking: her dance as Lacks is a dance for survival. At the heart of the piece is an ordinary woman who loved to dance, sneaking off to blues halls when she was a teenager. As she sways, or spasms in pain, a timeline plays out on the big screen behind her, showing the development of stem cell research from the 1950s to the present day, and how her own cells are still saving lives.

The Lacks family still haven't seen a penny, while the doctors and researchers saunter off amid glittering plaudits. There are two diseases here – the diffuse, more openly discussed cancer, and the more insidious disease of racism. A provocative, chilling piece which cuts to the bone.

Summerhall, 0845 874 3001, until 25 Aug (not 7, 20), 6.45pm, £9 (£7).


A solo work by Adura Onashile, taking the true story of Henrietta Lacks as its starting point: Lacks died of a cancerous tumour in 1951, samples were taken and the resultant HeLa cell line became one of the most important tools in medicine. There are enough of her cells alive today to make 400 new Henriettas. This piece…