Sideshow Theatre’s 2018-19 season launches with J. Nicole Brooks’ remarkable “HeLa,” a profound meditation on the individual’s relationship to the universe. “HeLa” oscillates from the corporeal body to heavenly bodies, the past to the future, the condition of the cell/self to the human condition. The play is a non-linear interweaving of Afrofuturism, the true story of Henrietta Lacks, and a little girl’s love for space. Beautifully balanced by humor and poetry under Jonathan L. Green’s direction, these worlds are navigated with compassion, sincerity and a curiosity for the unknown.
What I like about this show is the nonlinear framework Brooks employs. The playwright tangles three indirectly related stories to create beautiful, holistic connections. (Art rooted in science is a reclamation of thought and language.) The marriage of poetry and science, life and death, supernovas and black holes happens in fractured direct addresses from the incomparable Deanna Reed-Foster. The embodiment of Afrofuturism, Reed-Foster’s text ushered in the idealistic fantasy of the Afrofuturism movement into a real person, drifting in space, asking questions about being. (Sun Ra’s escapism to outer space is realized.)
Nicole Michelle Haskins is a force to be reckoned with, her performance carrying tremendous weight and meaning. Matt Fletcher, Ann James, Ayah Sol Masai Hall and Carolyn Nelson enhance the complex storytelling with charming, honest work.
It was refreshing to witness a black family as they are, with their laughter, love and struggle, to not feel pressure to present them as exceptional as so many plays do. “HeLa” reclaimed the story of Henrietta Lacks, a regular woman with exceptional cells that made a deep impact on the scientific community.
This mind-blowing production was completed with the help of an exceptional design team. Sound design and scenic design by Michael Huey and Yu Shibagaki, respectively, played with the contrast between the celestial and clinical. Lighting by Sim Carpenter extended into the audience as edison bulbs overhead twinkled like stars. The work of Noël Huntzinger (costume) and Jonathan Berg-Einhorn (properties) grounded this world with design that brought us back to earth.
“HeLa” is a profound work of theater that connects us all to the stuff we are made of. (Kelsey McGrath)
Sideshow Theatre Company and Greenhouse Productions at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln, greenhousetheater.org, $15-$35. Through December 23.