The history of medical experimentation on Black Americans is historically one of the most diabolical acts committed by private individuals, companies and the U.S. Government against their own neighbors and citizens.
This history of inhuman treatment is explored in “How Blood Go,” a world premiere presented by Congo Square Theatre, written by playwright Lisa Langford and directed by Tiffany Fulson. The story alternates between present-day and the Jim Crow era (approximately 1890-1960). The set by Courtney O’Neill is efficient and effective, taking place in an operating room with large curtains that hide two other settings, allowing for smooth jumps in the show’s alternating timeline.
We first meet aspiring internet influencer Quinn (Kayla Kennedy) who has big hopes of making it big in the burgeoning online fitness market. Besides mild calisthenics, Quinn, who is white, includes repartee containing sarcastic, stereotypical comments about Black women’s bodies.
A quick change of scenery shows two Black women enjoying a casual conversation. Quinntasia (Jyreika Guest) listens as her best friend, older woman Didi (Yolanda Ross), gives advice regarding her experience with men—check their medicine cabinet to make sure your man doesn’t have “dick-a-betes!” In turn, Quinntasia tells her about her enrollment in a new medical study that helped her lose weight, and all she must do is wear a small, disc-shaped patch that monitors her vitals.
We’re then transported to the past. Inside a one-bedroom cabin two Black men, Bean (David Dowd) and Ace (Ronald L. Conner), speak of their life goals. Ace aspires to become a doctor—no easy feat for a Black man during Jim Crow—and Bean is on a quest to make enough financial gains to assure that upon his inevitable death that his grave is marked with a “stone” to prove that “I was here.” Ace becomes weary when Bean develops a severe cough and body aches, but Bean assures him that he is getting special treatment by “the white man doctor.”
Back to present-day, Quinntasia checks in at the medical study with Doctor Anne, who is white, but comes away with shocking news: The disk on her neck is not a monitor for vitals, but a new technology that can make other people see her as white. An even bigger twist, Quinn and Quinntasia were the same person all along!
The point of the study reeks of paternalism. In a demonstration for shareholders, Anne explains how the study aims to help people of color achieve equality of outcome by making them appear white to people in the medical industry. Anne assures investors that this technology will help Black people overcome their natural obstacles that normally prevent good treatment, that they are mostly loud, disrespectful, angry and smoke cigarettes.
Meanwhile, a check-in with Bean finds him even more debilitated despite thirty years of treatment by the “white man doctor.” Ace, having achieved his doctorhood, kicks Bean out of their house, punishing him for living a life of debauchery and ignorance, a powerful metaphor that reminds us how class and stature trumps even racial solidarity.
Back to the present, Quinntasia suffers an existential meltdown. In their shared apartment, boyfriend Tron (Marcus D. Moore) only wants to sleep with her when she appears white, and Didi is not getting appropriate medical treatment for a severe condition because she is Black. Both problems could be solved by using the race-changing disk, but comes with a terrible cost, the loss of identity.
Today, many people will deny medical treatment even when in good faith, an unfortunate side effect of an abominable history of abuse. One hopes plays like this, that both entertain and educate, will shepherd a new path toward the end of medical apartheid, something that the medical industry has failed to do. “How Blood Go” is a powerful metaphor about the reality of white privilege, the devious way it is implemented by the elite class and the universal effect on those who wield such corrupting power.
“How Blood Go” by Congo Square Theatre at Steppenwolf 1700 Theater, 1700 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org/howbloodgo. Tickets are $35 ($20 for seniors and students), discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. March 11–April 23.