Earlier this year, I mentioned working on a passion project, Painted Red, based on the true but harrowing story of Henrietta Lacks whose “HeLa” cells were stolen from her body during cancer treatment and used to advance scientific discoveries without her consent. The Lacks family was robbed of their mother and for many years, the truth about what she endured.
Our production was humble: an “equity showcase.” Painted Red was self-produced by Dr. Cynthia Stephens who wrote and directed the work. She rented a small studio in Manhattan and gave us a couple of weeks to perform for who ever would come. We provided a lot of our own costumes and survived on a modest travel stipend and faith: faith in the story and faith that special people had been brought together to tell it. After all, Dr. Stephens had previously cast a pre-Oscar-winning actress by the name of Lupita N’yongo in an earlier work.
So perhaps this meant someone important would be in the audience one night: a producer or a manager who would see the play’s potential or have a job just for me. This is what is supposed to make the low-paying showcase worth it. Exposure. Well, Uzo Aduba came one night which I definitely tweeted about. And we got a bit of press which was nice but the most important people we performed for, without a doubt, were Dr. Roland Patillo and Jeri Lacks.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the cast as we were being thanked by Henrietta’s granddaughter and the man that first introduced the family to the novelist who wrote the book which inspired Painted Red. No salary or review could have exceeded the worth of that moment. It was clear why Dr. Stephens’ company was called Sacred Ground Productions. This small studio was still a theatre and a theatre is always a sacred place where the truth can be heard and healing can begin.
Yes, sometimes it’s not about the money or the exposure but the heart behind the art that allows us to give a gift that no one else can give.
Dr. Patillo told us that to this date every two hours a new discovery is made because of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal legacy. I can only hope that for every two hours I’m on stage telling a story that I can do the same.