Review: DO NO HARM Heals with Hurt at Soul Rep Theatre Company

A stunning product of the pandemic finally gets the staged production it deserves.

By: Mar. 24, 2022

Review: DO NO HARM Heals with Hurt at Soul Rep Theatre Company

By my count, at least six monuments or memorials exist in the United States commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a nineteenth-century American physician who has been hailed throughout history as "the father of modern gynecology." More specifically, Sims discovered a curative surgery that eliminated the pain of fistulas many women suffered from following pregnancy complications, by many counts of the greatest advancements in women's health. The inevitable trouble with monuments and memorials, though, is that they too easily become the midwives of lies, putting individuals on a literal pedestal without questioning who lifted them up or on whose backs the stone was placed. For example, and to the best of my knowledge, none of the memorials to J. Marion Sims make mention of the fact that he made his reputation performing painful surgeries-without anesthesia or sedation-on enslaved women who were incapable of offering informed consent, if they were even given that opportunity.

Thankfully, Dallas playwright Anyika McMillan-Herod has erected a monument of her own in the form of her drama DO NO HARM, a monument built on words and laughter and tears rather than marble and granite, one that speaks to its viewers and asks them to respond in kind, and one that finally honors the African American women whose lives were broken so that another man could make his reputation. The play, produced by Soul Rep Theatre Company and the Elevator Project at AT&T Performing Arts Center, runs March 10-19 at the Wyly Theatre.

DO NO HARM tells the story of several months in the lives of three women known to have been operated on by Sims when he was still in the early stages of his career in the American South: Anarcha, the first woman to be cured; Betsey; and Lucy. As the women survive through the final months of their treatment, they reflect on faith, the meaning of suffering, sisterhood, and the small miracles of their lives that allow them to endure the unendurable. They are frequently in their cabin by a white associate of the Sims family, Tabitha, whose overt racism belies the ways in which she too has been dehumanized and made less of a woman as a result of the institution of slavery.

Originally scheduled for a staged production in 2020, DO NO HARM first made its premiere as a "hybrid play/film," with many scenes filmed at the Dallas Heritage Village. While this mixed-media production proved a critical success, it is finally receiving the full staged production it deserves; the stories of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy are best heard face-to-face from their own mouths, and the emotional catharsis from the audience from palpable on opening night amid gasps, sighs, and even laughter.

McMillan-Herod's script feels no need to follow many of the accepted conventions of drama. While time in the play progresses linearly from just before Thanksgiving to right after the dawn of the New Year, the passing of time means nothing to the conversations and memories of the enslaved women who pass their time in conversation and caring for one another. They fall into the past, resist the pressures of the present, and look as far as hope can take them into the future, giving the play a timelessness so ethereal that audiences would be forgiven for thinking the action of the drama was taking place in our own century instead of nearly 200 years ago. More striking still, McMillan-Herod crafts a narrative that consistently surprises. The climax audiences come to expect never arrives (it isn't a spoiler to say that the women lived long enough to find themselves cured), but the climax they don't see coming hits them like a smack across the face. To say more would be to lessen the emotional impact.

The three actresses portraying Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy have a difficult task before them, creating full emotional lives for women who have largely been written out of history, a challenge they readily overcome with courage and commitment. As the largely mute Anarcha, Brittney Bluitt makes up for her character's silence with an expressive physicality; the intimate space of the Wyly's blackbox theatre allows every arched eyebrow and strained smile to speak follows that would get lost in a larger space. Bluitt commits to this voice-through-movement so comfortably that-when she does finally speak-she sounds like a hurricane, lashing out against the injustices of a world she tried to stay silent in for so long. Johanna Nchekwube plays the motherly Betsey, a woman who finds ready strength in her seemingly endless faith... at least until that faith runs out. Nchekwube's commitment to her character's ardent Christianity is strikingly sincere, never condescending to stereotypes or caricature, but wavering just enough at signs of trouble that her crisis of faith feels legitimate and inevitable. Whitney LaTrice Coulter's Lucy stands as a foil to Betsey, cursing God and Man, caring for little beside her sisters in the cabin and the family that waits for her outside of its walls. The brilliance of Coulter's performance is in her lightness, her ability to add a hint of laughter to her righteous indignation so that audiences see a woman who may view the world around her with cynicism but who has committed herself to survival all the same. When put together on stage, all three actresses create something akin to a music, riffing off one another, each secure in their unique purpose and performance while recognizing that their stories are made more powerful in being told together.

Claire Carson's Tabitha is the only concrete white presence in the play, her character less historical than thematic, intended to show how patriarchal slavery affects everyone under its domain regardless of race. There are times when Tabitha's casual racism feels a bit too abrasive for someone who visits three Black women on a regular basis for company and conversation, but Carson's childlike good humor perfectly illustrates how this woman has been kept in immaturity by the world around her without making her the butt of any jokes.

Any noticeable faults in the production had nothing to do with these actresses or with Guinea Bennett-Price's utilitarian direction, which makes great use of limited space. Rather, this play that transports audiences so readily into timelessness seemed haunted by the frustrations of modern technology. Voiceovers providing background biographical information about the enslaved women were occasionally too garbled to be understood perfectly, and the lighting design left the women in virtual darkness in more than one instance, which may have been intentional if the characters hadn't been holding up signs intended to be read by the audience.

But DO NO HARM ultimately rises on its scripts and the way in which it is performed by four actresses whose work will hopefully grace the DFW area for years to come. They have given voice to the voiceless and-in doing so-given us a truth to combat the lies.


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