'Miss Evers' Boys,' Story Of A Disgrace

Posted: November 15, 1991

First, there's Hodman Bryan, who goes along with the government's doctors but dabbles in potions and spells on the side, just in case. Then there's Ben Washington, who learns to write his name at 71 and proudly uses the skill to sign the paper that authorizes his own impending autopsy.

Next there's Caleb Humphries, perpetually mistrustful of white people, who falls for nurse Eunice Evers but eventually defies her to obtain the cure that she won't provide. And there's Willie Johnson, who dreams of conquering

Harlem's Cotton Club with his dancing feet while his friends provide accompaniment on tambourine, spoons and washboard.

And most of all, there's Miss Evers herself, who has grown up on this dirt- poor farming land in Macon County, Alabama, and is determined to give something back to it.

In the next week or so, you may read a great deal about the historical background and the ethical issues that undergird Miss Evers' Boys, which the Philadelphia Theatre Company is presenting through Dec. 1 at the Plays and Players Theatre. But I choose to begin with the drama's five principal figures

because, for all its social, historical or moral implications, David Feldshuh's play is first of all a profoundly human examination of recognizable people living recognizable and deeply touching lives.

It is, in other words, a real play. Not a line of its dialogue rings false; not a moment of its narrative seems calculated to make a point. Although Miss Evers' Boys is based on an actual incident of several decades' duration, its characters are all invented. But none is a stock type, existing merely to give voice to a condition or an attitude (although one comes close), and it's refreshingly even-handed in dispensing blame.

Lord knows there's blame enough to go around. Miss Evers' Boys deals with the infamous 1932 Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro, in which a group of unlettered, syphilitic black men in Macon County was allowed to go without a cure for more than 30 years - even though penicillin was discovered 14 years into the study and treatment would doubtless have saved the lives of many of them.

Who was responsible? Feldshuh implies that nearly everyone was - the authorities in Washington, for whom the study takes on a momentum that must be followed to "the end point," or death; the black hospital director in Alabama, fearful of losing funds not only for the treatment of syphilis but for many other needs; and even Miss Evers herself, who nurses the men through the years but worries that defying the doctors would violate her oath and further endanger her patients.

"If you want to walk where I walked, you gotta be walkin' that messy middle ground," she tells a U.S. Senate committee when the study is ultimately exposed. Yet although it's among the play's virtues that Miss Evers is not let off lightly, it's also a virtue that the play devotes its primary attention to her relationship with her four charges.

"Those men were susceptible to kindness," she says at the end, confirming both the matter of the play and its tragedy - that at this time and this place, kindness simply was not enough.

As Miss Evers, Sharon Washington gives a performance of simple dignity and simple tenderness that is, of course, anything but simple. As her "boys," Rony Clanton, Kevin N. Davis, Benard Cummings and Lex Monson are all outstanding, creating sharply etched individual personalities while blending into an ensemble that periodically erupts in song and dance.

The direction, which creates a seamless narrative that becomes almost unbearable in the second act, is by Christopher Ashley. The effective unit set, which sets a few boxes and boards against a backdrop of weathered slats, is by Paul Wonsek.

Miss Evers' Boys premiered in 1989 at Center Stage in Baltimore and is being produced in regional theaters across the country. Partly, no doubt, that's because its concerns continue to resonate today. But mostly, I suspect, it's because Feldshuh has written one helluva play.

MISS EVERS' BOYS

Written by David Feldshuh; directed by Christopher Ashley; sets and lighting by Paul Wonsek; costumes by Jess Goldstein. Presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Plays and Players Theatre. Ends Dec. 1.

Eunice Evers - Sharon Washington

Hodman Bryan - Rony Clanton

Willie Johnson - Kevin N. Davis

Caleb Humphries - A. Benard Cummings

Ben Washington - Lex Monson

Dr. John Douglas - David Manis

Dr. Eugene Brodus - Robert Gossett

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