Charly Evon Simpson

Urogynecologist Briana Walton and Literary Historian Gabrielle Foreman join Actor and Scholar Naomi Lorrain to discuss the historical & scientific context of BEHIND THE SHEET

March 2 Panel.png

On March 2, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of Behind the Sheet, the powerful new drama by Charly Evon Simpson, everyone is encouraged to stay for our fifth talkback about the historical and scientific context of the play, as well as the many issues it addresses. On the panel this week, we have Dr. Briana Walton, director of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery at the AAMC Women’s Center for Pelvic Health, and literary historian Gabrielle Foreman, the Ned B. Allen Professor of English and Professor of History and Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, for a conversation moderated by research scholar and Behind the Sheet actor, Naomi Lorrain.

Behind the Sheet confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor—her owner—as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, the play dramatizes how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

The World Premiere of Behind the Sheet is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Dr. Briana Walton

Dr. Briana Walton

Dr. Briana Walton has served as the Director of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery at Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) since its inception in 2008. She is recognized as an expert in robotic/minimally invasive surgery and treatment of fibroids, urinary incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse. In the field of robotics, she has personally performed 500 plus pelvic reconstructive surgeries while developing programmatic growth around quality, cost containment, and safety. Before starting the Women’s Center for Pelvic Health at Anne Arundel Medical Center, Dr. Walton was the Director of Benign Gynecology at Washington Hospital Center. She has also served as adjunct assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Urology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Internationally, she uses her clinical skills and strengths in the treatment of health care disparities. She has worked in Ghana, Niger and most recently Rwanda where the program focuses on obstetrical fistula repairs, but the group has developed other clinical programs to treat the victims of trauma and genocide. She has served as board member and team leader for the International Organization for Women and Development.

Gabrielle Foreman

Gabrielle Foreman

P. Gabrielle Foreman is a teacher and scholar of African American studies and nineteenth-century literary history who has published extensively on issues of racial reform and slavery with a focus on the past’s continuing hold on the world we inhabit today. In her current manuscript The Art of DisMemory: Historicizing Slavery in Poetry, Performance and Material Culture, she traces the story of an enslaved Connecticut man named Fortune who was dissected and skeletonized by his enslaver, Dr. Preserved Porter. As the state abolished slavery, the Porter family turned their chattel property into intellectual property, passing down Fortune’s bones through generations of family doctors before donating his bones to a regional museum where he was the most popular exhibit until the 1970s. Our generation knows his story because the museum commissioned poet Marilyn Nelson to write about him. She and Ysaye Barnwell also created a manumission requiem with Nelson’s poetry serving as lyrics. Gabrielle teaches at the University of Delaware where she is the Ned B. Allen Professor of English and Professor of History and Africana Studies. She is also the founding director of the Colored Conventions Project, which brings decades of nineteenth-century Black activism to digital life.

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff).

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff).

About the Moderator

Naomi Lorrain plays Philomena in the world premiere production of Behind the Sheet by Charly Evon Simpson at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Naomi is a New York City-based actor, playwright and scholar. She received her B.A. in the History of Science, History of Medicine and African American Studies from Yale University and her M.F.A. in Acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She works part-time as a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her plays include A Trojan Woman’s Tale (Villa La Pietra), The Queen of Macon County (The National Black Theatre), Shelfies (The 52nd Street Project), The Big O (Villa La Pietra), and Rigor Mortis (NYU Tisch). Recent theater credits include What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Movement Theatre Company), Stained (The Amoralist), Song for a Future Generation (Williamstown Theatre Festival), Restoration Comedy (The Flea), and Daughter of Lot (Edinburgh Fringe Festival). TV: “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix), “Elementary” (CBS), “The Good Fight” (CBS), “Madam Secretary” (CBS). As a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant, she has worked on several books, including Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes. At Yale, her senior essay “Plan B: The Collision of the Birth Control Movement and the Uplift Movement Viewed Through Works of Angelina Weld Grimké” received both the Lily Rosen Prize in Women's Health for best essay that contributes to knowledge about women’s health and the William Pickens Prize for outstanding senior essay in the field of African and African American Studies.


Behind the Sheet began previews on January 9 and runs through March 10 at EST. You can purchase tickets here.

EST-Sloan.jpg
Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg

Historian Deborah Gray White, Urogynecologist Ambereen Sleemi, Playwright Charly E. Simpson join Communications Pro Ayofemi Kirby to discuss the historical & scientific context of BEHIND THE SHEET

020219+panel+collage_600x199.jpg

On February 23, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new drama by Charly Evon Simpson, everyone is encouraged to stay for our fourth talkback about the historical and scientific context of the play, as well as the many issues it addresses. Joining Charly will be Deborah Gray White, Distinguished Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, and Ambereen Sleemi, Executive Director and Surgical Director of International Medical Response, for a conversation moderated by Ayofemi Kirby, who manages all communications and publicity initiatives at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture.

BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor—her owner—as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, the play dramatizes how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

The World Premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Professor Deborah Gray White

Professor Deborah Gray White

Deborah Gray White is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She is author of the seminal book Ar’n’t I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South; Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994; several K-12 textbooks on United States History, and Let My People Go, African Americans 1804-1860 (1999).  In 2008, she published an edited work entitled Telling Histories: Black Women in the Ivory Tower, a collection of personal narratives written by African American women historians that chronicle the entry of black women into the historical profession and the development of the field of black women’s history. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, a co-authored college text, is now in its second edition. As a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and as a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, White conducted research on her newest book, Lost in the USA: American Identity from the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March.  She holds the Carter G. Woodson Medallion and the Frederick Douglass Medal for excellence in African American history, and was also awarded a Doctorate in Humane Letters from her undergraduate alma mater, Binghamton University. She currently heads the “Scarlet and Black Project” which investigates Native Americans and African Americans in the history of Rutgers University. With Professor Marisa Fuentes she is editor of the 2016 volume: Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History.

Dr. Ambereen Sleemi

Dr. Ambereen Sleemi

Ambereen Sleemi is a female pelvic medicine reconstructive surgeon (urogynecologist) and trained obstetric fistula surgeon. She is Co-founder, Executive Director and Surgical Director of International Medical Response and leads a medical relief project in Puerto Rico, and fistula training programs in Malawi, Liberia and Haiti. Dr. Sleemi has served as an obstetric fistula surgeon for the Eritrean Women’s Project in Mendefera, Eritrea since 2007, and as a surgical team co-leader for Medicine in Action’s spring trip to Kingston, Jamaica as well as on the medical board. She spent six years on the executive committee of the International Society for Obstetric Fistula Surgeons (ISOFS) and is still an active member. In January, 2013, she developed the Haitian Women’s Heath Collaborative in partnership with the Department of Ob/Gyn at the National Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson is the author of BEHIND THE SHEET, this year’s EST/Sloan mainstage production. Her other plays include Jump, Scratching the Surface, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey, Stained, Hottentotted, Trick of the Light, While We Wait, who we let in, or what she will, and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, Ars Nova, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, The Flea, P73’s Summer Residency, National New Play Network through its NNPN/Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop and National Showcase of New Plays, and others. Jump will receive an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, with productions at Playmaker’s Rep (Chapel Hill, NC), Actor’s Express (Atlanta, GA), Milagro Theatre (Portland, OR), and Shrewd Productions (Austin, TX) in 2019-20.  She’s currently a member of WP Theater’s 2018-2020 Lab, The New Georges Jam, The Amoralists 18/19 ‘Wright Club and she’s The Pack’s current playwright-in-residence. Charly is a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s 17/18 Early Career Writers’ Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, and Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Purchase and an engager at The Engaging Educator. 

About the Moderator

Ayofemi Kirby

Ayofemi Kirby

Ayofemi Kirby is a communications and public engagement professional who builds mission-driven brands, engaged audiences and active communities, on and offline. She is passionate about helping individuals, multicultural communities and organizations across sectors tell powerful stories, start provocative conversations and build the relationships necessary to achieve meaningful results and measurable impact.

With more than 10 years of experience at the intersection of communications, civic engagement and culture, Ayofemi has managed online and corporate communications in the financial sector, developed award-winning programs that empowered Snake People across the country to be leaders in their communities and more active in our democracy, and led communications for the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill. She has also shaped and shifted community and media conversations about political, civic engagement, entertainment and cultural initiatives as an independent consultant.

Ayofemi currently manages all communications and publicity initiatives at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture and continues to runs her own consultancy, CODE PR GLOBAL where she has worked with SONY Pictures, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, the NYC Office of the Mayor, A+E Networks and others. Her work has shaped media coverage in and secured partnerships with the New York Times, USA Today, ARTNews, Teen Vogue, CBS News, Essence, Ebony, OkayAfrica, The Huffington Post, NBC, among many others.


BEHIND THE SHEET began previews on January 9 and runs through March 10 at EST. You can purchase tickets here.

EST-Sloan.jpg
Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg

Historian Marisa Fuentes, Urogynecologist Ambereen Sleemi, Public Health Specialist Erin Anastasi & Playwright Charly E. Simpson join Actor Naomi Lorrain to discuss the context of BEHIND THE SHEET

From left: Marisa Fuentes, Ambereen Sleemi, Erin Anastasi, Charly Evon Simpson, Naomi Lorrain

From left: Marisa Fuentes, Ambereen Sleemi, Erin Anastasi, Charly Evon Simpson, Naomi Lorrain

On February 2, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new drama by Charly Evon Simpson, everyone is encouraged to stay for the third and final talkback about the historical and scientific context of the play, as well as the many issues it addresses, especially the history of gynecological surgical techniques, the rights of enslaved women to be used for experiments, what urgent gynecological concerns exist today in the developing world, and much more. Joining Charly will be Marisa J. Fuentes, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University, Ambereen Sleemi, Executive Director and Surgical Director of International Medical Response, and Erin Anastasi, Coordinator of the Campaign to End Fistula at the United Nations Population Fund, for a conversation moderated by actor and research scholar Naomi Lorrain (Philomena in the play).

BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor—her owner—as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, the play dramatizes how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

The World Premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Professor Marisa J. Fuentes

Professor Marisa J. Fuentes

Marisa J. Fuentes is the Presidential Term Chair in African American History and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University—New Brunswick. Her scholarship brings together cultural studies, critical historiography, and black feminist theory to examine gender, sexuality, and slavery in the early modern Atlantic World. Professor Fuentes is the author of Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) which won the Barbara T. Christian Best Humanities Book Prize, the Berkshires Conference of Women’s Historians First Book Prize, and the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians. She is also the co-editor of Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, Volume I (Rutgers University Press, 2016), and the “Slavery and the Archive” special issue in History of the Present (November 2016).  

Dr. Ambereen Sleemi

Dr. Ambereen Sleemi

Ambereen Sleemi is a female pelvic medicine reconstructive surgeon (urogynecologist) and trained obstetric fistula surgeon. She is Co-founder, Executive Director and Surgical Director of International Medical Response and leads a medical relief project in Puerto Rico, and fistula training programs in Malawi, Liberia and Haiti. Dr. Sleemi serves as an obstetric fistula surgeon for the Eritrean Women’s Project in Mendefera, Eritrea since 2007, and as a surgical team co-leader for Medicine in Action’s spring trip to Kingston, Jamaica as well as on the medical board. She spent six years on the executive committee of the International Society for Obstetric Fistula Surgeons (ISOFS) and is still an active member. In January, 2013, she developed the Haitian Women’s Heath Collaborative in partnership with the Department of Ob/Gyn at the National Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Erin Anastasi with children in northern Uganda (Gulu district) where she worked on a project with MSF/Doctors Without Borders.

Erin Anastasi with children in northern Uganda (Gulu district) where she worked on a project with MSF/Doctors Without Borders.

Erin Anastasi is Coordinator of the Campaign to End Fistula and Technical Specialist for Sexual & Reproductive Health (SRH)/Obstetric Fistula in the Technical Division at the United Nations Population Fund. In 2017, the United Nations Federal Credit Union Foundation awarded Erin its Women’s Empowerment Award for her leadership of the Campaign.  She received her doctorate in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the University of London and her Master of Health Sciences from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Launched in 2003, the Campaign to End Fistula now consists of over 100 global partners working in more than 55 countries across Africa, Asia and the Arab region. In each country it focuses on prevention by increasing access to quality maternal health care services; treatment, from training doctors in fistula surgery to equipping and upgrading fistula centers; and rehabilitation/reintegration, including emotional, economic, and social support.   

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson is the author of BEHIND THE SHEET, this year’s EST/Sloan mainstage production. Her other plays include Jump, Scratching the Surface, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey, Stained, Hottentotted, Trick of the Light, While We Wait, who we let in, or what she will, and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, Ars Nova, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, The Flea, P73’s Summer Residency, National New Play Network through its NNPN/Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop and National Showcase of New Plays, and others. Jump will receive an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, with productions at Playmaker’s Rep (Chapel Hill, NC), Actor’s Express (Atlanta, GA), Milagro Theatre (Portland, OR), and Shrewd Productions (Austin, TX) in 2019-20.  She’s currently a member of WP Theater’s 2018-2020 Lab, The New Georges Jam, The Amoralists 18/19 ‘Wright Club and she’s The Pack’s current playwright-in-residence. Charly is a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s 17/18 Early Career Writers’ Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, and Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Purchase and an engager at The Engaging Educator. 

About the Moderator

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff).

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff).

Naomi Lorrain plays Philomena in the world premiere production of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Naomi is a New York City-based actor, playwright and scholar. She received her B.A. in the History of Science, History of Medicine and African American Studies from Yale University and her M.F.A. in Acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She works part-time as a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her plays include A Trojan Woman’s Tale (Villa La Pietra), The Queen of Macon County (The National Black Theatre), Shelfies (The 52nd Street Project), The Big O (Villa La Pietra), and Rigor Mortis (NYU Tisch). Recent theater credits include What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Movement Theatre Company), Stained (The Amoralist), Song for a Future Generation (Williamstown Theatre Festival), Restoration Comedy (The Flea), and Daughter of Lot (Edinburgh Fringe Festival). TV: “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix), “Elementary” (CBS), “The Good Fight” (CBS), “Madam Secretary” (CBS). As a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant, she has worked on several books, including Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes. At Yale, her senior essay “Plan B: The Collision of the Birth Control Movement and the Uplift Movement Viewed Through Works of Angelina Weld Grimké” received both the Lily Rosen Prize in Women's Health for best essay that contributes to knowledge about women’s health and the William Pickens Prize for outstanding senior essay in the field of African and African American Studies.

BEHIND THE SHEET began previews on January 9 and runs through February 10 at EST. You can purchase tickets here.

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg

Historian Evelynn Hammonds and Urogynecologist Lauri Romanzi join Playwright Charly Evon Simpson and Historian Jennifer L. Morgan to discuss medical experiments, lost voices, and BEHIND THE SHEET

From left: Professor Evelynn Hammonds, Dr. Lauri Romanzi, Charly Evon Simpson, Professor Jennifer L. Morgan

From left: Professor Evelynn Hammonds, Dr. Lauri Romanzi, Charly Evon Simpson, Professor Jennifer L. Morgan

On January 19, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new drama by Charly Evon Simpson, audiences are encouraged to stay for what promises to be a lively discussion of many of the issues the play addresses, especially the history of gynecological surgical techniques, the rights of enslaved women to be used for experiments, race and gender relations in nineteenth-century America, and much more. Joining playwright Charly Evon Simpson will be Evelynn Hammonds, Chair, the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, and urogynecologist and fistula surgeon Lauri Romanzi for a conversation moderated by Jennifer L. Morgan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis & History at New York University.

BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor—her owner—as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, the play dramatizes how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

The World Premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Professor Evelynn Hammonds

Professor Evelynn Hammonds

Professor Evelynn Hammonds is a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. She is currently Chair of the Department of the History of Science and Director of the Project on Race & Gender in Science & Medicine at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard.  Prof. Hammonds was the first Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity at Harvard University (2005-2008).  From 2008-2103 she served as Dean of Harvard College. Professor Hammonds’ areas of research include the histories of science, medicine and public health in the United States; race and gender in science studies; feminist theory and African American history. She is the author of Childhood's Deadly Scourge: The Campaign to Control Diphtheria in New York City, 1880-1930 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 2002), and, most recently, with Rebecca Herzig, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics (MIT Press, 2008.) Professor Hammonds’ current work focuses on the intersection of scientific, medical and socio-political concepts of race in the United States.

Dr. Lauri Romanzi

Dr. Lauri Romanzi

Dr. Lauri Romanzi is an international fistula surgeon, urogynecologist and an advisor to the Office of Global Women’s Health of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her international work includes academic appointment through Yale University to Rwanda’s Human Resources for Health, as well as long-term relationships with Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and with Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Somaliland.  She has worked in West Africa onboard Mercy Ship, throughout sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia as an academic collaborator to national and international healthcare organizations, and as technical consultant to the United Nations Population Fund for development of  “End Fistula” strategic plans for Nepal, Afghanistan and Eritrea.  Within the United States, she collaborates with global health organizations to advocate on Capitol Hill for effective fistula legislation. In addition to  academic publications, she has authored works to inform the public, including Plumbing and Renovations, The Good In Bed Guide to Pelvic Organ Prolapse, and the chapter “Sexual Violence: Genital Fistula and Conflict” for the book Operation Crisis: Surgical Care in the Developing World during Conflict and Disaster.

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson is the author of BEHIND THE SHEET, this year’s EST/Sloan mainstage production. Her other plays include Jump, Scratching the Surface, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey, Stained, Hottentotted, Trick of the Light, While We Wait, who we let in, or what she will, and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, Ars Nova, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, The Flea, P73’s Summer Residency, National New Play Network through its NNPN/Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop and National Showcase of New Plays, and others. Jump will receive an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, with productions at Playmaker’s Rep (Chapel Hill, NC), Actor’s Express (Atlanta, GA), Milagro Theatre (Portland, OR), and Shrewd Productions (Austin, TX) in 2019-20.  She’s currently a member of WP Theater’s 2018-2020 Lab, The New Georges Jam, The Amoralists 18/19 ‘Wright Club and she’s The Pack’s current playwright-in-residence. Charly is a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s 17/18 Early Career Writers’ Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, and Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Purchase and an engager at The Engaging Educator.

About the Moderator

Professor Jennifer L. Morgan

Professor Jennifer L. Morgan

Professor Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of History in the department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University where she also serves as Chair.  She is the author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in the Making of New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and the co-editor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America (University of Illinois Press, 2016).  Her research examines the intersections of gender and race in in the Black Atlantic world.  Her most recent journal articles include “Accounting for ‘The Most Excruciating Torment’: Trans-Atlantic Passages” in History of the Present and “Archives and Histories of Racial Capitalism” in Social Text.  In addition to her archival work as an historian, Professor Morgan has published a range of essays on race, gender, and the process of “doing history,” most notably “Experiencing Black Feminism” in Deborah Gray White’s edited volume Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2007). She is currently at work on a project that considers colonial numeracy, racism and the rise of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the seventeenth-century English Atlantic world tentatively entitled “Accounting for the Women in Slavery.”  Morgan teaches courses on the history of slavery, on race and reproduction, and on comparative feminist theory and praxis. 

BEHIND THE SHEET began previews on January 9 and runs through February 10 at EST. You can purchase tickets here.

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg

 

A Note on the Scientific & Historical Context of BEHIND THE SHEET

Behind-the-Sheet-Program-FinishedCover-%28image%29.jpg

In the spirit of the EST/Sloan Project’s commitment to “challenge and broaden the public’s understanding of science and technology and their impact in our lives,” we offer this essay on some of the scientific and historical background to BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, the 2019 EST/Sloan mainstage production. BEHIND THE SHEET begins previews on January 9 and runs through March 10. You can purchase tickets here.

Background essay by Rich Kelley

The first Women’s Hospital in America is thought to be the four-story, 20-bed institution that used to stand at Madison Avenue and 29th Street in New York City, founded by Dr. J. Marion Sims in 1855 where he operated on ailing white women. That claim, however, ignores the two-story, eight-bed “sick house” Sims had set up on a small slave farm in Mount Meigs, Alabama, where from 1844 through 1849 he performed surgical experiments on between 10 and 17 enslaved women, most of them suffering from what we now call obstetric fistulas. 

Left, First Woman’s Hospital in New York City, 1857; Right, Dr. Sims’ first women’s hospital, Montgomery, Alabama (photographed in 1895 by Edward Souchon. Courtesy of the Reynolds Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Left, First Woman’s Hospital in New York City, 1857; Right, Dr. Sims’ first women’s hospital, Montgomery, Alabama (photographed in 1895 by Edward Souchon. Courtesy of the Reynolds Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Dr. Sims had come to Alabama in 1840, at the age of 27, to open a new medical practice. He had closed his first practice in South Carolina after his first two patients, infants, had died, probably from cholera. Sims quickly developed a reputation as a skilled surgeon. In those days bleeding to death was a constant danger during surgery and Sims describes in his memoirs how he relied on speed in the surgical area to save his patients.

Sims’ speculum

Sims’ speculum

While widely known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims was quite frank in his memoirs about his initial distaste for the field: “If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.” Little was known of female anatomy at the time and, frustrated by what he couldn’t see in 1845 during his first case of an obstetric fistula, Sims turned a pewter spoon into a kind of duck-billed retractor. Describing the first use of the “Sims speculum,” he wrote, “I saw everything as no man had ever seen before. The fistula was as plain as the nose on a man’s face.” 

What he saw led Sims to believe he could find a way to repair a devastating condition that had plagued women for centuries. “I said at once, ‘Why cannot these things be cured?’” The case at hand involved the pregnancy of Anarcha, a seventeen-year-old slave girl who had been in labor for three days when Sims was called. He was not able to save the baby, and, days later, he observed that she had developed both kinds of obstetric fistulas: a vesico-vaginal fistula and a rectal-vaginal fistula. These can occur during long, obstructed labors when the infant’s head is too large to pass through the pelvic canal. The infant’s head traps the soft tissues of the pelvis up against the pelvic bone, cutting off the blood supply. When labor continues for several days, the tissues die. In a vesico-vaginal fistula, the wall between the bladder and the vagina breaks down and creates a hole, leading to uncontrollable urine leakage. In a rectal-vaginal fistula, the wall between the rectum and the vagina breaks, causing fecal leakage. The ensuing incontinence often produces infections, strong odors, and, over time, the painful inflammation and scarring of the inner legs. Fistula patients quite often become ostracized from family and friends, depressed recluses, unable to live in their homes.

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

To test his idea, Sims needed more patients with the same condition. We know from his records the names of two others, Betsey and Lucy. As Sims writes, “I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes: If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them.”

He kept them for five years. Each had a fistula and was experimented on several times, Anarcha perhaps as many as thirty times. When two years passed without a breakthrough, the white colleagues who had assisted Sims drifted away and he had to train his slaves to assist him in the experiments, including restraining patients during surgery, which was performed without anesthetic. Many became addicted to the opium he gave them to ease their pain.

Illustration from a contemporary medical textbook shows patient in “Sims position”

Illustration from a contemporary medical textbook shows patient in “Sims position”

By continually operating on these women, Sims perfected many of his techniques. To improve his ability to visualize the fistula, he invented the “Sims position,” when the patient lies on her left side with her left leg straight but flexing her right knee and hip, pulling the right leg up.

Sims eventually realized he needed something stronger to hold the repair. On June 21, 1849, he used fine silver wire on Anarcha for the first time. On day seven after the operation he re-examined her and found that the fistula had healed perfectly. Sims was ebullient: “I realized that in fact at last my efforts had been blessed with success and that I had made perhaps one of the most important discoveries of the age for the relief of suffering humanity.”

Sims would go on to a storied career as a surgeon in New York and Europe, but questions continue to rage about his contention that his patients consented to his experiments. Sims defenders make the case that these women had much to gain from these operations given the crippling effects of fistula and that no other treatment existed.

In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens presses the case that we understand Sims in his historical context:

“Gynecological surgeons during the early and mid-nineteenth century were neither exceptionally cruel nor sadistic physicians who enjoyed butchering black women’s bodies, as some scholars have argued. They were elite white men who lived in an era when scientific racism flourished. Ideas about black inferiority were established and widely believed, as was the underlying assumption about black people’s intelligence. Black women, particularly those who were enslaved, were a vulnerable population that doctors used because of easy accessibility to their bodies. Further, the value of black women’s reproductive labor demanded that it be “fixed” when it was seen as “broken” by those who depended on their labor.”

Many question why Sims did not use any anesthetic in his operations on slave women but later did so in New York when his clientele were mostly white women. Some contend that Sims believed that African American women had a higher tolerance for pain. Additionally, when he began his experiments in the 1840s, Sims may not have had full knowledge of what anesthetics were available. The first public lectures about nitrous oxide and diethyl ether did not take place until 1845 in Boston and their use did not become common in surgical practice until the 1850s. But even in the 1850s, Sims remained skeptical about the use of anesthesia. In a lecture to The New York Academy of Medicine in 1857, Sims remarked that the Sims position “permits the use of anesthetics if desired, but I never resort to them in these operations, because they are not painful enough to justify the trouble. “

Owens’ book presents an even-handed account, but importantly, much of the book turns our attention and appreciation to the unheralded experiences and contributions of the women Sims and others experimented on:

“Beginning with those nearly ten black bondwomen who labored under Sims as leased chattel, patients, and nurses, they serve as the counter to Sims’s designation as ’father’. They are the rightful ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine.  . . . Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatment, and cures.”

The statue

The Sims statue when it stood on Fifth Avenue outside Central Park

The Sims statue when it stood on Fifth Avenue outside Central Park

Sims was the first medical professional to have a statue in his honor in New York City in 1894. It was first in Bryant Park and then moved to Central Park where it stood outside the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue. In response to protests about the statue during the summer of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio charged the Public Design Commission with determining what should be done. In its January 2018 report, the commission was quite scathing in its recommendation that the statue be moved.

“In short, especially in its current location, the Sims monument has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practice on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame. To confront this legacy in accordance with the principle of Historical Understanding, the Commission feels that the City must take significant action to reframe the narrative presented in the monument.” The status has been relocated to Greenwood Cemetery, where Sims is buried, and there are plans to add in both locations a plaque adding the names of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey along with a description of the roles they played in Sims’s life.

The state of obstetric fistulas today

In the developed world, ready access to obstetrical care, and especially caesarean section, have virtually eliminated the problem. However, fistulas remain an urgent problem in the developing world. The World Health Organization reports that more than two million young women live with obstetric fistulas in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and 50,000 to 100,000 new cases occur each year.  When those afflicted are able to get timely access to quality obstetrical care, 80% to 95% of them can be repaired surgically.

BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, the 2019 EST/Sloan mainstage production, begins previews on January 9 and runs through March 10. Tickets are available here.

Recommended Reading

 Books

 Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington (Doubleday, 2007)

 Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens (University of Georgia Press, 2017) Note: the opening to this essay was inspired by the opening of the introduction to Medical Bondage

 The Story of My Life by J. Marion Sims (D. Appleton & Co., 1884) 

 Journal Articles

 The medical ethics of Dr J Marion Sims: A fresh look at the historical record” by Lewis Wall in Journal of Medical Ethics, June 2006.

 “J. Marion Sims, the Father of Gynecology: Hero or Villain?” by Jeffrey S. Sartin, MD in Southern Medical Journal, May 2004.

 “A History of Obstetric Vesicovaginal Fistula” by Robert F. Zacharin in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, June 2008.

 “On the Treatment of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula” by J. Marion Sims in The American Journal of Medical Sciences, 1852. Reprinted in International Urogynecology Journal, 1998.

 “The medical ethics of the ‘father of gynaecology’, Dr J Marion Sims” by Durrenda Ojanuga in Journal of Medical Ethics, March 1993.

 Radio shows/Podcasts

 “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology” on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, February 7, 2017

 “The Controversial Figure of J. Marion Sims” Episode 51 of Legends of Surgery

 Websites

 J. Marion Sims in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama

 J. Marion Sims in Wikipedia

A Dr. J. Marion Sims Dossier at the University of Illinois – poets on J. Marion Sims

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg

 







“WHAT MAKES A GREAT PLAY ABOUT SCIENCE?” Four playwrights and three scientists join Doron Weber on November 19 for a special 20th anniversary EST/Sloan Artist Cultivation Event

Clockwise, from top left: Lucas Hnath, Cassandra Medley, Charly Evon Simpson, Anna Ziegler, Darcy Kelley, Stuart Firestein, Gabriel Cwilich, Doron Weber.

Clockwise, from top left: Lucas Hnath, Cassandra Medley, Charly Evon Simpson, Anna Ziegler, Darcy Kelley, Stuart Firestein, Gabriel Cwilich, Doron Weber.

To celebrate its landmark twentieth anniversary, the EST/Sloan Project is bringing together on November 19 many of the people who have been critical to the program’s success. Joining Sloan Program Director Doron Weber to discuss “what makes a great play about science?” will be playwrights Cassandra Medley, Lucas Hnath, Charly Evon Simpson, and Anna Ziegler, all of whom have had (or will soon have) EST/Sloan mainstage productions. Also participating will be EST/Sloan’s three veteran scientist/consultants: Gabriel Cwilich, Stuart Firestein and Darcy Kelley.

The 2018 Fall Artist Cultivation Event will take place at EST on Monday, November 19 at 8 PM (with a reception beginning at 7:30 PM). The event is free and any playwright interested in developing a play about science or technology is encouraged to attend. Expect a free-wheeling and far-ranging discussion about science, storytelling, and what makes plays work.  Reservations recommended. Reserve your ticket here.

“To stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.”—this has been the mission of The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project (EST/Sloan Project, for short) for the past 20 years. Over that time the EST/Sloan Project has awarded more than $3 million in grants to some 300 playwrights and theatre companies. More than 150 productions of EST/Sloan-developed plays have been mounted nationwide. (You can view previous commission recipients on the EST/Sloan webpage and submission guidelines here).

Two related events culminate each EST/Sloan season: 1) The First Light Festival is a series of readings and workshops that showcase plays in development—this season’s festival will take place in January-February, 2019—and 2) a full mainstage production of at least one work. This season’s mainstage production will be BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, which will begin previews on January 9 and run through February 3. Previous mainstage productions have included BUMP by Chiara Atik (2018) on pregnancy and childbirth, SPILL (2017) by Leigh Fondakowski on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Boy (2016) by Anna Ziegler on sexual identity, Please Continue (2016) by Frank Basloe on Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, Informed Consent (2015) by Deborah Zoe Laufer on scientific research and Alzheimer’s, Fast Company (2014) by Carla Ching on game theory and confidence games, Isaac’s Eye (2013) by Lucas Hnath on scientific method and rivalry, and Headstrong (2012) by Patrick Link on sports and concussions.

The 2018 20th Anniversary Artist Cultivation Event panel features:

Doron Weber

Doron Weber

Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs and Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helps the President oversee and improve all aspects of the foundation’s programs and plays a leadership role in Sloan’s broader philanthropic efforts with the foundation community. For the past 20 years, Doron has run the program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics at Sloan, which uses diverse media—books, radio, television, film, theater, opera and new media—to bridge the “two cultures” of science and the humanities and to educate and engage the public. He helped start Radiolab, Tribeca Film Institute, and World Science Festival; supports Emmy-winning television on American Experience, NOVA, and National Geographic, award-winning plays at not just the Ensemble Studio Theatre, but also the Manhattan Theatre Club, and London’s National Theatre, and Oscar-winning films via film schools and film festivals at Sundance, Tribeca, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He started the EST/Sloan Project with a grant for Arthur Giron’s Flight in 1996. Doron’s published works include the acclaimed Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir (2012) and three works of nonfiction. On November 14, the National Book Foundation presented Doron with the 2018 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, which is given to an individual for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading. Under Doron’s leadership, Sloan has helped ensure the publication of numerous groundbreaking and acclaimed books such as Hedy’s Folly by National Book Award Winner Richard Rhodes, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, and Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory.

The Playwrights

Lucas Hnath

Lucas Hnath

Playwright Lucas Hnath* is the author of Isaac’s Eye, which EST produced as the 2012 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production and which won the 2012 Whitfield Cook Award. More recently, Lucas wrote A Doll’s House, Part 2, which had its world premiere on Broadway in 2017 and closed after 30 previews and 173 regular performances at the Golden Theatre. With the original cast featuring Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad, the play garnered eight TONY nominations—the most of any play in the 2016-2017 season—and a Best Actress win for Metcalf as Nora. Lucas’s new play, From the Words and Writings of Dana H., will receive its world premiere at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in May, 2019. His other plays include A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, The Christians (which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off Broadway Play and a 2016 Playwriting Obie), and Red Speedo, which also won a 2016 Playwriting Obie. Lucas has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011 and is Assistant Professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Cassandra Medley

Cassandra Medley

 Cassandra Medley*’s play Relativity, about the conflict of two generations of black scientists and melanin research, was the 2006 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production. Coming Up for Air, her play about fracking and climate change, was part of the 2016 EST/Sloan First Light Festival. Recently produced plays include: American Slavery Project (NYC), Cell (Molelo Theater, CA, and Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2011, NYC), Daughter (Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2009, NYC), and Noon Day Sun (Diverse City Theatre Company, NYC). Cassandra has the received the 2004 “Going to the River Writers” Life Achievement Award, the 2002 Ensemble Studio Theatre 25th Anniversary Award for Theatre Excellence, the 2001 Theatrefest Regional Playwriting Award for Best Play, the 1995 New Professional Theatre Award, and the 1995 Marilyn Simpson Award. She teaches playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College, has taught at New York University, and has also served as guest artist at Columbia University, the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Seattle University.

Charly Evon Simpson (Photo: JMA Photography)

Charly Evon Simpson (Photo: JMA Photography)

Charly Evon Simpson’s play BEHIND THE SHEET, about the untold stories behind the rise of modern gynecology, will be this year’s EST/Sloan mainstage production and will begin previews at EST on January 9, 2019. Her other plays include Jump, Behind the Sheet, Scratching the Surface, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey, and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, Ars Nova, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, The Flea, P73’s Summer Residency, National New Play Network through its NNPN/Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop and National Showcase of New Plays, and others. Jump will receive an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, with productions at Playmaker’s Rep (Chapel Hill, NC), Actor’s Express (Atlanta) and Milagro Theatre (Portland, OR) in 2019-20.  She’s currently a member of WP Theater’s 2018-2020 Lab, The New Georges Jam, The Amoralists 18/19 ‘Wright Club and she’s The Pack’s current playwright-in-residence. Charly is a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s 17/18 Early Career Writers’ Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, and Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Purchase and an engager at The Engaging Educator.

Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler*'s widely produced play about Rosalind Franklin, Photograph 51, was the 2010 EST/Sloan mainstage production. It has been or will be produced in Germany, Latvia, Sweden, Italy, India, Japan, and Australia, among many other countries. When it was produced on London’s West End in 2016 (starring Nicole Kidman, winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress), Photograph 51 won the WhatsOnStage award for Best New Play. Her play Boy was an EST/Sloan mainstage production in 2016 (co-produced with Keen Company) and was nominated for the 2016 John Gassner Award by the Outer Critics Circle. In 2017, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Manhattan Theatre Club and The Geffen Playhouse premiered her play Actually (winner of the Ovation Award in Los Angeles for Playwriting of an Original Play), and The Roundabout Theatre Company produced The Last Match. Her work has also been produced at The Old Globe, Seattle Rep, The Magic Theatre, Playwrights Realm, City Theatre, and many more, and developed at the Sundance Theatre Lab, The O’Neill Playwrights Conference, NY Stage & Film, Soho Rep and the Cape Cod Theatre Project, among others. Anna is developing a television series with Michael Showalter for HBO based on Actually and a screenplay for Scott Free Productions. Oberon Books has published a collection of her work entitled Anna Ziegler: Plays One.

The Scientist/Consultants

Gabriel Cwilich

Gabriel Cwilich

Gabriel Cwilich is a condensed-matter-theory/statistical physicist in the Physics Department of Yeshiva University. He works on the physics of disordered media, including at the nanoscale, and has a strong interest in the physics of complexity and computer simulations. He has also explored the connections between the origins of classical physics and the cultural world of the renaissance, and periodically brings American students to Italy to teach them about that. He has been lecturing in the US and in Latin America on the connection between science and theater and has been collaborating and advising several theater groups and foundations in NYC (among them the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Epic Theater Ensemble) in projects that bring the world and ideas of science to the stage. He is also the Division Coordinator of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and Director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva University.

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences where his laboratory studies the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. Aside from its molecular detection capabilities, the olfactory system serves as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of signaling and perception in the brain. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell? Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science.  He is the author of Failure: Why Science Is So Successful (2015) and Ignorance: How It Drives Science (2012).

Darcy Kelley

Darcy Kelley

Darcy Kelley is the Harold Weintraub and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Her research interest is the neurobiology of voice—the subtle acoustic cues in vocal signals essential for social communication.  She and her colleagues study this question in Xenopus, a group of frogs that returned to the water from land about 180 million years ago, and invented a new way of creating and shaping the vocal signals that rule their social system. Her laboratory has defined the neural circuits that produce these underwater songs and determined how voice is decoded by auditory neurons. She is a longtime scientific advisor to the EST/Sloan Project and, for her pains, served as the model for the amphibian biologist played by Gina Gershon in Claudia Myers’ movie, Kettle of Fish (2006).

*Denotes EST Member Artist

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg










Charly Evon Simpson on medical experiments on slaves, the birth of gynecology, lost voices, and BEHIND THE SHEET

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

On Tuesday, April 3, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival will present the first workshop of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new play by Charly Evon Simpson about how medical experiments on plantation slaves in Alabama in the 1840s led to the birth of the science of gynecology in America. The playwright has much to tell us.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)  

How did BEHIND THE SHEET come to be? How has it changed through different drafts?

Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

A few years ago, I read an article about a group of women protesting at a statue of J. Marion Sims. As someone interested in how black women’s bodies have been seen and treated throughout history, I found myself trying to learn more about Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (the three enslaved women we know Sims experimented on) and how slavery intersected with the rise of gynecology. When it came time to apply for an EST/Sloan commission, my brain immediately went back to this history.

The play has changed since the proposal. For example, my first proposal included a more contemporary piece—a black woman gynecologist having to reconcile this history of her field. I soon decided to just focus on the history. Characters have come and gone, scenes have been cut and added, and history has made its way in and out of the story. My first draft was very true to what we know happened. This current draft allows a little more room for my voice and imagination, while staying true to the basic facts.

As you say, the play tells a story strongly inspired by the work of J. Marion Sims, a physician often referred to as the "father of gynecology" who practiced medicine in Alabama in the 1840s. He is credited with inventing the speculum and, most notoriously, trying out new gynecological surgical procedures on slaves without using anesthesia. But you don't use his name for your main character, whom you call George, and you give the female characters names different from the ones we know from history. Why the name changes? How is the story in the play different from Sims’?

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

I’ve gone back and forth on the name changes. And, you never know, perhaps the name changes won’t exist in a future draft, but for right now, it allows me some distance from the real story. It allows me to play as a writer in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was using their real names and really focused on getting every historical detail right. With the name changes, I am acknowledging that some of this is fiction. It is historical fiction. I am very aware that we don’t know what Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy were thinking or saying. I have J. Marion Sims’ book, for example, and what he says about them, but I don’t have their words. And I didn’t want to put words in their mouths. I want to shed light on this history and I want to give voice to the experience from the women’s perspective. For me, it is easier to explore the possibility of their perspectives without using their real names. That said, we make a point at the end of the play to bring it back to Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and J. Marion Sims. I don’t want to lose them or ignore them. I want the audience to know their names.

Why this play? Why now?

In December 2017, ProPublica published an article entitled “Nothing Protects Black Women from Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth.” The article is heartbreaking and shows how much more at risk black women are when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Education, income…when it comes to black women successfully carrying a child to term and surviving the childbirth and weeks after, it seems nothing is protecting us. In February 2018, Serena Williams shared her own struggles and complications after giving birth. There is a long history of our physical pain being ignored. There is a long history of black women being used for medical innovation while at the same time being ignored by medicine. This history, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, has influenced our current medical systems. And it is important to know the history so that we can make strides away from it. 

Women of all races are fighting for their reproductive rights and their healthcare right now, and I think it is important to acknowledge that some women have to fight particular fights that their counterparts do not. This is one of the fights. 

Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

BEHIND THE SHEET features five black slave women and one black slave man. How did you come to decide how many different black slave voices you wanted to dramatize? Did the number or the kind of voices change over time?

To be honest, I’m not sure. It just happened. I started with only three black women, but also wanted to somehow honor the other women Sims experimented on whose names we don’t know. So I felt free to move away from the three women and add the voices that came to me. 

There is an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics that states that "Although enslaved African American women certainly represented a ‘vulnerable population’ in the 19th century American South, the evidence suggests that Sims's original patients were willing participants in his
surgical attempts to cure their affliction." What do you make of this statement?

My first instinct is that, sure, if you are in pain and someone offers you a possible way out of that pain, chances are you might be willing to agree to experiments aimed at curing you. That said, “willing” is a…complicated word to use in reference to enslaved people. The power dynamic alone complicates any ideas around the word “willing”. What does willing even mean when your rights have been stripped away and your body is often being used in service of other people? When one does not own their own body, and when their worth is attached to said body, how does consent work? If any of them said “no,” how do we think their owners may have reacted? Also, if there was any notion of willingness and if it was respected at first, was there any room for that “willingness” to end? When Sims took on the financial burden of taking care of these women who were “unfit” to do much of what was expected to them, are we sure he would have been willing to stop?  Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other women—along with J. Marion Sims—didn’t know it would take numerous surgeries to find a cure for fistulas. If Anarcha wanted to stop at surgery 15, would she have been able to? What may have been done to “convince" her to keep going? 

We have a tendency to want to make our history seem way more light, bright, and friendly than it actually is. History is complicated. I’d rather we live in the complications than ignore them. 

What do you want the audience to take away from BEHIND THE SHEET?

Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

When director Colette Robert first read the play, she said she had to put it down because it made her stomach hurt. I don’t want to cause people pain, but I do hope the audience feels the discomfort, feels the complicatedness, feels the pain that is intertwined in our history. You can be grateful there is a cure for fistulas. You can also be disappointed that it was found at the expense of black women’s bodies. Holding those two feelings inside is possible and it is messy and it is uncomfortable and I want us to do it anyway. I hope the audience walks away feeling that messiness, thinking about that discomfort, and wondering what systems we may have in place that continue this history.

What kind of research did you do to write BEHIND THE SHEET? Did you work with a consultant?

I didn’t have a consultant. I read J. Marion Sims’ book, The Story of My Life. I read numerous articles, listened to talks (like "Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology" on NPR) and parts of books like, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A Washington. I read Patient. by Bettina Judd which is a book of poetry intertwining her experience as a patient with the experiences of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (as well as other black women who found themselves in the role of patient under racist conditions). I went to talks. Then I had to stop researching and just write the play. I wanted to respect and honor the history, but I also knew I was creating a piece of fiction and so I had to find a balance. 

How is BEHIND THE SHEET different from your other plays?

BEHIND THE SHEET is my most historical play. I have plays, like my play Hottenttotted, that has historical figures in them or attempts to discuss/shed light on an aspect of history, but this play is the most historical in that it is set in the past and tries to stay true to certain aspects of the history in a very big way.

You have been a member of EST's Youngblood program.  What impact did being a member have on your writing?

I have to say that I think the biggest impact for me was not on my writing, but on my understanding and participation in the theater community. I became a member of Youngblood only two months after moving back to NYC. While I knew a few people from college and high school doing theater in the city, being in Youngblood allowed me to meet a wide variety of actors, directors, writers, stage managers, etc. Many of my first theater opportunities came from people I met at EST. They helped me find my footing and place and continue to even after nearly two years out of the group. 

What's next for Charly Evon Simpson?

Jump.jpg

I have a few readings of new plays coming up in April and May with SPACE on Ryder Farm and Clubbed Thumb, respectively. Next January, my play Jump premieres at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. And there are some exciting things happening in between!

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year is the world premiere of BUMP by Chiara Atik. Directed by Claudia Weill, BUMP is a wildly entertaining exploration of the history of pregnancy and childbirth, from colonial times until now. Tickets are on sale now for performances, May 9 through June 3. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg