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 Honourable K.W. Harman: Ltd Ink Corporation

31 Bath Road, Leith Docks, March 17th-20th

In a monumental shipping container down by Leith Docks, a Sex Pistols tribute band is playing Anarchy in the U.K.. on a stage set up in the middle of the room. Either side, various constructions have been built in such a way so viewers can window shop as they promenade from one end of the room to the next, with the holy grail of a bar at either end.

Inbetween, there’s a confession booth and a mock-up of a private detective’s office with assorted documentation of real-life surveillance pinned to the walls. Two people seem to be having a conversation in public as if they're on a chat show. An assault course of smashed windows are perched on the floor like collateral damage of post-chucking out time target practice. A display of distinctively lettered signs originally created by a homeless man in search of a bed for the night are clumped together on placards that seem to be marking out territory or else finding comfort in being together. Opp…

Scot:Lands 2017

Edinburgh's Hogmanay
Four stars

A sense of place is everything in Scot:Lands. Half the experience of Edinburgh's Hogmanay's now annual tour of the country's diverse array of cultures seen over nine bespoke stages in one global village is the physical journey itself. Scot:Lands too is about how that sense of place interacts with the people who are inspired inspired by that place.

So it was in Nether:Land, where you could see the day in at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with a mixed bag of traditional storytellers and contemporary performance poets such as Jenny Lindsay. The queues beside the Centre's cafe were further enlivened by the gentlest of ceilidhs was ushered in by Mairi Campbell and her band.

For Wig:Land, the grandiloquence of the little seen Signet Library in Parliament Square was transformed into a mini version of the Wigtown Book Festival. While upstairs provided a pop-up performance space where writers including Jessica Fox and Debi Gliori read eithe…

Nomanslanding

Tramway, Glasgow until July 2nd
Four stars

In the dead of night, the audience are split in two and led under-cover into lamp-lit tented structures. Inside, what look like peasant women on the run lead us down a ramp and into a large circular pod. It feels part cathedral, part space-ship, and to come blinking into the light of such a fantastical structure after stumbling in the dark disorientates and overwhelms. Sat around the pod as if awaiting prayers to begin, we watch as performers Nerea Bello and Judith Williams incant mournfully on either side of the room. Their keening chorales embark on a voyage of their own, twisting around each other by way of the international language of singing. As if in sympathy, the walls wail and whisper, before starting to move as those on either side of the pod are left stranded, a gulf between them.

This international co-commission between Glasgow Life and the Merchant City Festival, Sydney Harbour Foreshaw Authority in Australia and Urbane Kienste …