J. Marion Sims, often called “the father of modern gynecology,” is best remembered for his pioneering treatment of fistulas. A key breakthrough was the use of silver rather than silk or lead sutures. The technique no doubt relieved the suffering of a great deal of women. But to reach that breakthrough, Sims experimented on at least eleven slaves. He refused to give them anesthesia during the operations, though they were allowed opium afterward. Only three of their names have been recorded for posterity: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Sims operated on Anarcha thirty times. The story is as gruesome as it is ordinary: not only have Black bodies long been the unwilling subjects of medical experimentation, but white doctors are still informed by racist beliefs when making pain treatment recommendations for Black patients.
Charly Evon Simpson’s Behind the Sheet tries to fill in the historical gap left by the records: in this fictionalized version of Sims’ makeshift hospital, Philomena (Naomi Lorrain) carries his baby and assists in his experiments while Dinah (Jehan O. Young), Sally (Cristina Pitter), and Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams) all take turns in the operating room. With only homemade perfume to soften the smell, the four gossip, trade predictions about the future, and reminiscence about family. Sims, meanwhile, hems and haws his way to a solution. Despite the fact that these fistulas are the result of childbirth, we never hear or see any babies onstage: it is a space of death, not life.
Behind the Sheet, then, is what Toni Morrison calls “literary archeology,” or the imaginative unearthing of stories repressed in their own time. “We are like Columbus!” Sims, here called George (Joel Ripka), boasts early in the play, a nod to another pioneer with a doubtful reputation. Here, Simpson accompanies the boast with the cynical and systematic destruction of bodies it entails. We are made to sit in the space between operation after operation, the only respite a still-healing wound. But while the actors are uniformly strong, the drama is somewhat lackluster, lacking in drive. There is a historical re-enactment quality to Behind the Sheet, as if Simpson did not allow her imagination enough freedom, as if she deferred too much to her research (the program includes a bibliography). So while the play does the admirable work of resurrecting the dead and condemning the enshrined, as theater it falls a little flat.
Behind the Sheet runs through March 10th at Ensemble Studio Theatre. 545 W. 52nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 40 minutes. No intermission.