Nerys Benfield

Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens, Gynecologist Nerys Benfield and Director Colette Robert join Actor/Scholar Naomi Lorrain to discuss slavery, the birth of gynecology in America, and BEHIND THE SHEET

From left: Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens, Dr. Nerys Benfield, Colette Robert, Naomi Lorrain

From left: Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens, Dr. Nerys Benfield, Colette Robert, Naomi Lorrain

On January 26, 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 what promises to be a provocative discussion of the many 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 the play’s director Colette Robert will be Deirdre Cooper Owens, Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY, and author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, and Nerys Benfield, Associate Professor and the Director of Family Planning in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine 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 Deirdre Cooper Owens

Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens

Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY in Queens, New York and an Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer.  She has served as an American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology Fellow in Washington, D.C. and is a board member for the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (UGA Press, 2017) won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African American women’s and gender history. Professor Cooper Owens is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution. In the fall of 2019, she will join the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Department of History as the inaugural Linda & Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and the Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program. Copies of Medical Bondage will be available for saleand signing by the authorfollowing the talkback.

Dr. Nerys Benfield

Dr. Nerys Benfield

Dr. Nerys C. Benfield is an Associate Professor and the Director of Family Planning, the Fellowship in Family Planning, and the Global Women's Health Program at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. She is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist in Bronx, New York and is affiliated with Montefiore Medical Center. Her research interests include the integration of contraceptive counseling, access, and distribution into medical care for high-risk women both domestically and internationally, uro-genital fistula, and clinical training and health technologies in low-resource settings. Dr. Benfield has worked in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 2008 where she has developed an academic collaborative research and clinical training program with research interests that include the integration of contraceptive counseling, access, and distribution into medical care for high-risk women, uro-genital fistula, and methods to optimize evidence-based clinical training and the use of health technologies such as information and communication technologies (ICT) and ultrasound in low-resource settings.

Colette Robert

Colette Robert

Colette Robert is the director of the world premiere production of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson (New York Times Critic’s Pick) at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Her recent directing credits include: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (NYU Grad Acting), Mary’s Wedding (Chester Theatre Company), Big Love (Sarah Lawrence College), How My Grandparents Fell in Love (EST, New York Times Critic's Pick), What Every Girl Should Know (NYU/Stella Adler Studio), Hottentotted (The Tank, Ars Nova/ANT Fest), The Mountaintop (Chester Theatre Company), Icons/Idols (The New Ohio/Ice Factory Festival), Flops, Failures, and Fiascos (The Civilians), and When Last We Flew (Diversionary Theatre and FringeNYC, GLAAD Media Award). As a playwright, her play The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel has been developed with Fuller Road Artist Residency, New Georges, Mabou Mines, and The Drama League. Colette is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, a co-facilitator of the New Georges Jam, and an adjunct lecturer in the Humanities department at Hunter College. 

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.

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

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