Waiting on Change: New play 'Do No Harm' is a history lesson you didn't learn and will never forget
By Cristee Cook
Do No Harm, a new play from Anyika McMillan-Herod, takes audiences back to 1840’s Alabama. The world premiere is presented by Soul Rep Theatre Company in partnership with SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. The play was commissioned by SMU’s Dr. Evelyn Parker and the Association of Practical Theology (APT) and tells the story of three enslaved women who were experimented on without anesthesia by “The Father of Modern Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the play was filmed in a slave cabin at Dallas Heritage Village and is available for streaming on-demand.
Societal events in the last decade, and especially in 2020, have illuminated the depth of racism in the United States. So when I sat down to watch Do No Harm, a few days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the week before an historic Presidential Inauguration, I braced myself to feel outrage, grief, and regret – because it seems like the more I learn about our history, the more I realize how emotionally convenient it has been to remain ignorant. McMillan’s play brings another piece of truth to the light, and it’s impossible to look away.
Co-Directed by Vickie Washington and McMillan-Herod, the historical piece moves slower than typical films or stage plays, and with the quicksilver energy of contemporary life, the pace of Do No Harm takes a moment to adjust to. The women in the story — Anarcha (Brittney Bluitt), Betsey (Jaquai Wade Pearson), and Lucy (Whitney Coulter) — spend much of their time in a waiting pattern. They wait for their next “appointment” with the doctor. They wait to visit their children and family. They wait to be free from enslavement. In addition to tackling a shocking subject, the talented cast creates a tension with the waiting, and raise the stakes of just how dangerous and terrorizing Dr. Sims’ experiments were.
Visits from Tabitha, the white owner’s wife (played by Brandy McClendon Kae) offer a momentary reprieve for the women, and her genuine kindness shines through the ingrained racist ideals to which she is enslaved. But whether Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy experience abuse or a small morsel of kindness remains in the hands of the slaveholders.
The narrative focus of the filmed play takes a bold perspective. Cinematographers Tonya Holloway and Sonny Jefferson highlight the experiences of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy by casting the slavers as imposing, larger than life, and mostly separate (with the exception of Tabitha). By filming the story this way, these out-of-touch slaveholders offer a mirror to now: How complacent have we allowed ourselves to be when hearing stories of survival? How privileged have we been in our assumptions that we are any better than the most vulnerable among us?
Still, McMillan-Herod has crafted a hopeful story out of our tragic past. Even in their rawest moments (beautifully explored by the unified cast), Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy remember that they are connected to God, family and ancestors, and each other. When the abuse is at its worst and more truth is revealed, empathy and unity expands in the story; and in my experience, in the heart of the audience. Perhaps that energetic exchange is where true freedom lies, and part of what I believe makes this play such a hopeful story of survival.
Do No Harm is a history lesson you likely didn’t learn, and it’s an emotional education. With strong design, focused direction, and vulnerable performances, this pertinent production reflects on the past while looking to the future. We’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, but we still have a long way to go. After experiencing Do No Harm…I say time’s up. The future must be now.
Do No Harm by Anyika McMillan-Herod is available for streaming on-demand through January 31, 2021. The world premiere is presented by Soul Rep Theatre Company in partnership with SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and was commissioned by SMU’s Dr. Evelyn Parker and the Association of Practical Theology (APT). For tickets, visit www.soulrep.org.