Behind the Sheet: medicine, consent and the rise of black women’s history in the U.S.
Charly Evon Simpson adds her essential voice to the American theater canon with her new play at the Ensemble Studio Theater.
I suspect myself to be an involuntary participant in some kind of immersive theater project when we are required to call for the lift operator to provide us passage to the second floor EST theater on 52nd street.
The lumbering ancient freight elevator is the size of a small car. A fitting journey via the industrial past of West Manhattan to the world of Behind the Sheet, the poignantly written and recently extended new play by Charly Evon Simpson (Jump, Scratching the Surface) set in the bucolic plantation heartland of 19th Century Alabama.
In the theater, Behind the Sheet features a period set with embedded lighting and deep bass beats that enter and exit throughout like members of the otherwise minimalist cast. These hints of contemporary culture remind us that history is fluid, time is non-existent, and humanity is consistently both incredibly cruel and deeply generous. The beat in the music, the beating heart of those whose bodies are a commodity, echoes the audiences’ as we bear witness to characters handled roughly by a surgeon, held down on the rickety wooden table, or sickeningly creeped by searching hands of the powerful.
The beautiful, strong, and smart lead, ready to discover her power, is Philomena. Played with stature and grace by Naomi Lorraine (What to Send Up When It Goes Down, “Orange is the New Black”), Philomena’s transition is one of apathy towards empathy, teenagehood to womanhood, ignorance to discovery. Beneath the writer’s loving pen — Evon Simpson is a powerhouse writer whose work must go further than this stage into the broader American canon — Philomena loses her ignorance and finds her sisterhood.
Philomena and the three women with whom she quarters, eats, breaths, laughs, bleeds and screams, are the quintessent nucleus of the play. Each is a mother. Each has lost loved ones in one sense or another, at some stage or another.
In Evon Simpson’s work, the reality of life as a 19th century black slave is presented with clarity and poignancy in it’s surreal lack of exceptionalism. Children are gone. Connections are fleeting. Life is now. Memories only bring pain. Pain is constant, profound and frighteningly literal.
At the play’s opening, the father of Diana’s child lingers for a moment after she is sold. He leaves with his owner. We never learn his name. He has not said goodbye to the mother of his daughters. He does not say goodbye. And we do not see him again.
The story of an Alabama Dr who invented the method for operating on vaginal fistulas caused by hard labors and curing women of birth injuries that often left them incontinent and in constant pain is paved with the torment of those upon whom he experimented.
It is the lack of gravity — the lack of drama and exceptionalism — in Evon Simpson’s writing, as each character slowly reveals her personal story and experience, that is the gleam of brilliance amongst brilliance in this work. The brutal use of the disenfranchised — women who could not give their consent because consent was not in their power — are not simply historical or factual. They are personal stories told through the daily lives and daily tasks of each of the four women. The making of perfume to hide the odor that accompanies not only their original vaginal ailment, but also the infections that ensue at the Dr’s failed attempts to heal them. Efforts to squat each day with a brass bowl to wash discharge from beneath skirts. Completing sowing work. Patching. Darning. Constant limping. Small acts of kindness toward one another and others on the plantation.
The use of female slaves for sexual exploitation and as breeders — never with the assumption that their consent was required — are accepted realities of this exceptional context that Evon Simpson does not shy away from.
The modern parallels to the failure of our healthcare system to care for and protect many in our society are compelling and shocking. The rate of women in the U.S. with life threatening maternity-related illnesses has more than doubled in the past 10 years with unequal access to care a major factor.* The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world and black women are four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth and from post-partum complications.** Low income women are more likely to work in jobs that do not provide maternity leave making it difficult to breastfeed and further threatening their long term health and that of their children. The U.S. is still the only first world country that does not offer any kind of national paid parental leave.
Evon Simpson’s writing reminds us that consent is still weaponized against women. More than the right to say no, consent is knowing we have the right to say no. In locations around the world where vaginal fistulas still occur, where access to care and cesarean section are unlikely, women are still stigmatized for their injuries. Women’s health is still considered a secondary priority and high quality care is simply not an option for many women in a field that is perceived to be less lucrative and less glamorous.
Our contemporary social disparities are deeply founded in history, and history is told by the wealthy and the powerful. Without the full story we cannot hope to conceive solutions to modern problems.
Evon Simpson’s beautiful play, telling the stories of the most disenfranchised and underrepresented in modern history, is a crucial reminder that we must empower black women to tell stories, to be directors and writers. To play lead roles. That the emergence of black women’s history is essential to fashioning a better future for all of us.
Evon Simpson invites us to be reminded that the exceptional still exists. Slavery, the separation of children from their mothers and fathers, detainment of the powerless at the hands of the powerful are all modern concerns as much as they are historic. If we are shocked by Behind the Sheet, which is all we can be, then we must also be shocked by the contemporary versions, and moved to take action. Through the work of bold and talented young writers such as Evon Simpson, and the programs that empower writers of color and female artists and directors, black women’s stories will continue to be told. What is clear is that the full history, black women’s history, is only just emerging and works such as Behind the Sheet are essential to us knowing the full and complete story.
Behind the Sheet is extended through March 10, 2019 at the Ensemble Studio Theater.
*Data according to a 2017 report conducted by NPR; **Data according to a 2015 study conducted by the Harvard Chan School