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Behind the Sheet

A gracefully written and beautifully acted drama based on a true story of a surgeon who performed experimental surgery on enslaved women in the mid-1800s.

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Cristina Pitter, Naomi Lorrain and Nia Calloway in a scene from Charly Evon Simpson’s “Behind the Sheet” (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Mark Dundas Wood

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

Charly Evon Simpson’s emotionally powerful and gracefully written Behind the Sheet is based loosely on the story of real-life surgeon J. Marion Sims, who—in the mid-nineteenth century—experimented on the living bodies of enslaved women in Alabama. These women were afflicted with obstetric fistulas—a condition brought on by prolonged labor. The malady proved difficult to treat. But after painful and repeated operations on his patients, Sims eventually found an effective surgical solution. He enjoyed acclaim for his discoveries during his lifetime, but in recent years, the focus has rightly shifted to the lives of the women who put their lives on the line, willingly or not, with no guarantee that they would be made whole.

In Simpson’s play (directed by Colette Robert), the Sims character, played by Joel Ripka, is named simply George. He is an ambitious man, eager to prove himself as an innovator in his profession. Ripka plays him not as a sadistic monster but as a man caught up in his era’s banality of evil. George’s wife, Josephine (the excellent Megan Tusing), has grown impatient with his obsession with the medical problem he’s chosen to tackle. Theirs is not a happy marriage, in part because he has begun relying on her personal house slave, a woman named Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), to serve as his personal assistant during surgical procedures. Josephine may not know for certain—but she has her suspicions—that Philomena has also had a sexual relationship with George. In fact, at the top of the play, Philomena is pregnant with a child apparently sired by George, while Josephine has experienced a failed pregnancy.

Megan Tusing and Naomi Lorrain  in a scene from Charly Evon Simpson’s “Behind the Sheet” (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Philomena is the play’s central character, and the likable Lorrain does a superb job of tracing the arc of the character’s story. In the early scenes, Philomena has a relatively untroubled life. Obviously, there is a power imbalance between her and the doctor. She’s aware that, within a matter of seconds, “Master George” can go from treating her as a lover/colleague to reminding her sternly that she is merely his “property.” Nevertheless, she and her fellow house slave, Betty (Nia Calloway), partake of privileges that the sick women George has purchased for his medical experiments don’t share. The patients are jealous and suspicious of the favored servants. But when complications ensue with her own pregnancy, things shift hastily and drastically for Philomena.

The ailing women, who bunk together in the doctor’s “sick house,” are rich dramatic creations, and the actors playing them give thoroughly engaging performances. There’s the sardonic realist Sally—played by Cristina Pitter with both heart and a bit of cheek. Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams) is a quiet, helpful soul and a calming presence but somebody not shy about speaking her piece. The relative newcomer to the circle is Dinah (Jehan O. Young), a somewhat older woman who, when she first appears, has a scowl so forbidding and a hurt so deep that there seems no way the others will find any kind of connection with her. Young is first-rate in this role, giving a truly memorable turn. In fact, the whole ensemble—which also includes Stephen James Anthony and Shawn Randall (both playing multiple roles)—is solid. Bravo, casting director Tom Rowan for helping to assemble such a terrific group.

Joel Ripka and Stephen James Anthony in a scene from Charly Evon Simpson’s “Behind the Sheet” (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Obviously, this is a play for which any sort of a happy ending will be deeply compromised, but what Simpson does so beautifully is show us how these women overcome their suspicions and envy to find support in one another. It’s tempting for playwrights to work toward such an end by wallowing in sentimentality. However, it never seems that Simpson, Robert or the talented women portraying these characters are pulling frantically at our heartstrings. The plot unfolds simply and satisfyingly, with the characters’ behavior always plausible and unforced. Surprising moments of humor serve as grace notes to an otherwise somber story.

Laurence E. Moten III’s set has a dank, creepy look. It’s effective, but exactly what or where the titular “sheet” is remains unclear. Adam Honoré’s lighting design adds to the menacing atmosphere—especially effective is the light beneath the slats of the raised stage floor, which creates a sort of cage-like effect in one sequence. Sound designer Fan Zhang uses extreme volume at one point to rattle the entire stage (and perhaps the entire building) with thumping bass-clef notes. Sarah Woodham’s costumes are richly detailed—from the house dresses of the slaves to Josephine’s intricate antique undergarments (for a boudoir scene in which Philomena helps dress her).

At the curtain call, the actors detain the audience for a few moments to explain the ways in which the play differs from the true-life story of J. Marion Sims. They inform us, for instance, that there is no evidence that Sims had sexual relationships with his slaves. That obviously is not going to make him seem much less unsavory. But it’s smart of Simpson and Robert to set the record straight.

Behind the Sheet (extended through March 10, 2019)

Ensemble Studio Theatre

Curt Dempster Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

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Mark Dundas Wood
About Mark Dundas Wood (37 Articles)
Mark Dundas Wood contributes to the Bistro Awards website and The Clyde Fitch Report in addition to Theaterscene.net. Previously he wrote for American Theatre and Backstage. Credits as dramaturg include New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James’ "The Tragic Muse" appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. He received an MFA in theater (dramaturgy) from Columbia University.
Contact: Twitter

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