In January 2021, HAPPY provided a group of students and staff from across Yale’s health professional schools the opportunity to premier Soul Rep Theater’s filmed play Do No Harm. Following the screening, students and stagg had the privilege of a conversation with playwright Anyika McMillan-Herod, play commissioner Dr. Evelyn Parker, and cinematographer Tonya Holloway of Soul Rep Theater.
Do No Harm centers around the stories of three enslaved Black women - Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy – and the unconscionable medical experiments they suffered at the hands of Dr. J. Marion Sims. Dr. Sims, the 19th century white American physician known as “the father of modern gynecology,” perfected his surgical techniques by performing operations on enslaved Black women without anesthesia under the horrifically misconceived notion that Black people did not feel pain. As medical ethicist Barron H. Lerner states, Sims is “a prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.”
The play is especially relevant to current public health struggles to reconcile the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities, the history of medical research on Black individuals, and the ways this history impacts vaccine acceptance. During the discussion with Soul Rep artists, students and artists explored the use of arts in examining these issues, the challenges of making art during the pandemic, and the ways histories of medical racism impact health communication today.
Do No Harm was originally scheduled for performance in April 2020, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the play was cancelled and filming took place at a slave cabin in Dallas Heritage Village, Texas, in November 2020. According to Soul Rep Co-Founder and Co-Producer Tonya Holloway, the cinematic release of Do No Harm in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic has “allowed our company to stretch and explore other areas of the craft.” The film release is particularly timely as the disparate medical treatment of the black community has revealed itself during this tumultuous and unpredictable time in our history.
Playwright Anyika MacMillan-Herod noted, “The sad truth is that to this day, there are still people in the medical field who share Dr. J. Marion Sims’ mentality. A mentality that says Black people’s biology is different. That we feel less pain. That we are undeserving of dignified, compassionate and equitable medical care.”
Do No Harm was a culminating event to a HAPPY session in November 2020, that used theater as a tool to imagine the future of public health. This powerful and illuminating play demonstrates the need for continued diversity and inclusion in our century, and, regretfully, the distance needed to travel for reconciliation of the systemic racism of our past.
Soul Rep Theater, located in Dallas, Texas, and established in 1996, is the longest-running Black theater company in Dallas’ history. Their mission states “Black art, Black narratives, Black joy, Black families, Black history, Black love, Black struggle, Black brilliance, and Black lives have always mattered.” Among other works, Soul Rep is planning the release of a documentary on racism’s impact on Black theater.
Do No Harm was sponsored by The Association of Practical Theology (APT), Common Ground Economic Development Corporation, Moody Fund for the Arts, Southern Methodist University (SMU) Perkins School of Theology, and TACA.