Phoenix Theatre's moving Arizona premiere of Miss Evers' Boys puts achingly human faces on a truly brutal episode of American racism.
The year is 1932, and a group of black men in Macon County, Alabama, is chosen for a seemingly benevolent government study on how best to treat syphilis patients in the rural South. After two years, when funding for medical treatments runs out, the men start receiving placebos, and the study's focus changes to become "The Tuskegee Study in Untreated Syphilis of the Negro Male." Thus begins 14 years of government-sponsored inhumanity that persists even after the discovery of the syphilis cure--penicillin.
In Miss Evers' Boys, playwright David Feldshuh, who is both an experienced dramatist and an emergency physician, has mixed fact with fiction to create Eunice Evers, a public-health nurse assigned to oversee the care of the patients in the study. Feldshuh delves into the lives of four tenant farmers who join the study with the promise of free medical care. These endearing characters have aspirations of dancing their way out of their difficult farming lives. Led by Willie Johnson's fancy footwork, they set their sights on Harlem's Cotton Club, unaware that the study will help deny them their dreams.
In this marvelous production, director Michael D. Mitchell brings together a spectacular ensemble of performers. Even amid some sloppy staging in very tight playing areas, they sent out a clear message of humanity that drove the opening-night audience to its feet.
Leading the cast in the role of Miss Evers is Rene Morgan Brooks. With motherly care and determination, Brooks moves smoothly from the hopeful optimism of a nurse to the irredeemable shame of a senate hearing witness 40 years later.
As the field physician for the Public Health Service and a main decision-maker behind the study, David Hemphill is solid. Hemphill's commanding portrayal powerfully depicts his conflict between his dedication to science and his love for humanity.
Miscast as the hospital administrator, Scott Van de Mark is the only sore spot in the show. Delivering his lines with the excitement of a medical-school anatomy book, Van de Mark is out of his league, surrounded by seasoned veterans on all sides.
Giving an incredible ensemble performance are the four "patients." The dancer of the group, Oliver Barrero, is fantastic, showing amazing physical control as he watches his ability fall victim to the disease. Barrero moves the audience to tears in his scene.
Ken Love is first-rate as the questioning patient, never quite accepting that the government would be concerned with him. During a skin-crawling spinal-tap scene, Love fights back the screams he is too proud to let escape, creating an empathetic squirming in the audience.
Practicing his own brand of superstitious healing is Timm Rogers, wide-eyed and scared, as the innocent with the least common sense. Rogers, last seen in Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre's Antigone, shows himself to be quite a versatile performer, adding a youthful sparkle to this dark piece.
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Sporting a low, distinct voice, Shelton Bailey rounds out this talented cast as the eldest of Miss Evers' boys. Bailey shines in a touching scene where Evers teaches Bailey how to write out his name.
Scenic designer Gro Johre and lighting designer Kraig Blythe have worked in tandem to create convincing sets of a dilapidated schoolhouse, an examination room and even a car, providing for seamless transitions from scene to scene.
While Miss Evers' Boys is an almost palpable reminder of our nation's sometimes genocidal heritage, it also dramatically serves to buoy our optimism for the survival of the individual spirit. This is a dynamic evening of theatre not to be missed.
Miss Evers' Boys continues through Sunday, March 10, at Phoenix Theatre, Central and McDowell.