Adura Onashile didn't know much about science when she read Rebecca
Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Despite this,
something in this little known story of the black working class woman
whose stem cells were taken without her permission in 1951 struck a
chord with the actress who first came to prominence when she appeared
in Cora Bissett and Stef Smith's multiple award winning sex-trafficking
The result was HeLa, Onashile's first solo work, developed with
director Graham Eatough. First seen as part of Edinburgh Science
Festival in 2013, Iron-Oxide Ltd's production went on to an equally
successful Edinburgh Festival Fringe run as part of the Made in
Since then, the show has toured to India, Trinidad, Brazil, Jamaica and
South Africa, with several dates in New Zealand forthcoming. Onashile
has also managed to slot in some performances closer to home, and this
weekend plays two nights at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.
Responses to HeLa have been different depending on the sensibilities of
the audience, as Onashile has discovered.
“In places in the Caribbean,” she says, “the focus was whether
Henrietta Lacks would be able to rest in peace, because burial rites
are so important to people there. Then in India it became much more
about ethics. In Scotland and England the issue has always been about
what Henrietta's life was worth in terms of it contributing to medical
progress. When we're in New Zealand, the performance is part of an
event that looks at the nature of science and the arts, and I've been
asked to give a lecture on the nature of truth in art and science.
People always think the truth is very factual in science, but it's only
factual until it's proved wrong.”
As well as Edinburgh, Onashile has taken HeLa to the British Science
Festival in Birmingham.
“Audiences there recognised that we were pointing out that an injustice
of some sort had been done,” she says, “but they also recognised that
we're not making all of science out to be the bad guy.”
Onashile was born in London, and grew up in Nigeria until she was
eleven, when she returned to the UK. She studied drama at the
progressive Dartington College in Devon, where she explored many of the
multi-disciplinary ideas she works with today.
“That's where a lot of my ideas about freedom in theatre came from,”
she says, “although in England I never felt like they were allowed to
breathe. In Scotland,” she says of the country she now calls home, “the
scene seems to allow for that a lot more.”
HeLa arrives in Edinburgh a week after Exhibit B, Brett Bailey's
controversial contemporary re-imagining of nineteenth century human
zoos, saw its London run at the Barbican cancelled following protests.
Exhibit B was previously seen as part of Edinburgh International
Festival in association with assorted producers, including Iron-Oxide
Having seen the show, Onashile's personal feelings about it are mixed.
“For me, anyone can make whatever art they want,” she says, “but it has
to have a dialogue, which for me Exhibit B lacked. In my mind I don't
know how you marry the experience of someone who was in a human zoo
with someone who picks up a bag and becomes an economic migrant. There
are huge differences there in terms of agency and racial equality. I
spoke to Brett Bailey in Edinburgh, and he couldn't see the controversy
in the way he perhaps does now.”
Beyond HeLa, Onashile plans on developing a new show, Expensive S***,
inspired in part by nightclub toilet attendants, many of whom are of
“I became fascinated by the world they exist in,” Onashile explains.
“They're often without papers, and they aren't paid very well, but work
these six hour shifts every night, having to deal with inebriated
The show's title is taken from a song by radical Nigerian musician Fela
“Fela was an amazing guy,” according to Onashile. “On one level he was
a revolutionary, but he really fell down in his attitudes to women.”
Onashile plans to set the play in three different places, “Glasgow,
Lagos and these fantasy type toilets at the end of the world. I like
work that uses a lot of different styles, and to look at things that
make me feel uncomfortable, so it means that you can't be on one side
or the other, but can look at all the greys inbetween.”
This is certainly the case with HeLa.
“It's good that audiences who go to HeLa come away knowing who
Henrietta Lack was and what happened to her,” Onashile says. “By
putting her story out there, I'd like the play to be a celebration of
HeLa, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 3-4.
The Herald, October 1st 2014