Skip to main content

Adura Onashile - HeLa

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
drama, Roadkill.

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
Scotland programme.

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
Ltd.

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
Nigerian descent.

“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
people.”

The show's title is taken from a song by radical Nigerian musician Fela
Kuti.

“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
her life.”

HeLa, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 3-4.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, October 1st 2014




ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Maids

Dundee Rep

Two sisters sit in glass cases either side of the stage at the start of Eve Jamieson's production of Jean Genet's nasty little study of warped aspiration and abuse of power. Bathed in red light, the women look like artefacts in some cheap thrill waxworks horror-show, or else exhibits in a human zoo. Either way, they are both trapped, immortalised in a freak-show possibly of their own making.

Once the sisters come to life and drape themselves in the sumptuous bedroom of their absent mistress, they raid her bulging wardrobe to try on otherwise untouchable glad-rags and jewellery. As they do, the grotesque parody of the high-life they aspire to turns uglier by the second. When the Mistress returns, as played with daring abandon by Emily Winter as a glamour-chasing narcissist who gets her kicks from drooling over the criminal classes, you can't really blame the sisters for their fantasy of killing her.

Slabs of sound slice the air to punctuate each scene of Mart…

Futureproof 2017

Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow until February 4th 2018
Four stars

Now in its ninth year, Futureproof's showcase of recent graduate photographers from seven Scottish art schools and universities returns to its spiritual home at Street Level, with nineteen artists embracing photo essays, abstraction and constructed narratives. It is Karlyn Marshall's Willies, Beuys and Me that grabs you first. Tucked in a corner, this depiction of a woman impersonating iconic artist Joseph Beuys says much about gender stereotyping, and recalls Manfred Karge's play, Man to Man, in which a German woman took on her dead husband's identity.

The personal and the political converge throughout. Ben Soedera's Foreign Sands contrasts natural resources and the constructed world. Gareth and Gavin Bragdon's The Bragdon Brothers moves onto the carnivalesque streets of Edinburgh. Kieran Delaney's Moments also looks at the apparently ordinary. Matthew Buick goes further afield, as tourists…

James Ley - Love Song to Lavender Menace

James Ley had never heard of Lavender Menace when he won an LGBT History Month Scotland Cultural Commission award to write a new play. While Edinburgh's pioneering gay book shop that existed between 1982 and 1987 before reinventing itself in new premises as West and Wilde wasn't on Ley's radar, he had vaguely heard of the Gentlemen's Head Quarters, the nickname for the public toilet that existed at the east end of Princes Street outside Register House. He was also half aware of Fire Island, the legendary gay nightclub that existed at the west end of Princes Street in a space that now forms the top floor of Waterstone's book shop.

As he discovered, Fire Island was a central focal point for what was then a still largely underground gay scene in Edinburgh's capital. Alongside the likes of the Laughing Duck pub on Howe Street, Fire Island was one of the few places where HI-NRG music could be heard in what would these days be dubbed a safe space for gay men and wo…