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Open: 03/19/09- Close: 04/05/09 Miss Ever's Boys
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ashley Griffin
Nathan Johnson ©2017  Clockwise from Top right: Jason Donnell Bush*, Nedra McClyde*, David Pendleton*, Garrett Lee Hendricks, Marty Austin Lamar

Miss Evers’ Boys is that once in a blue moon type of play that, not only should be seen, but NEEDS to be seen.

Nathan Johnson ©2017  Caleb and Nurse Evers - Garrett Lee Hendricks and Nedra McClyde*

Written by playwright David Feldshuh (yes, the brother of Tovah Feldshuh – star of the Broadway play Irena’s Vow) proves that extraordinary talent runs in the family. At the end of Miss Ever’s Boys I learned that Mr. Feldshuh’s play was the runner up for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. I am far from surprised.

The Red Fern Theatre Company, a wonderful company who does great work on a less than great budget rises to the occasion of Mr. Feldshuh’s material. Miss Evers’ Boys tells the disturbingly true story of one of the most notorious medical secrets in American history. In 1932, four African American men, one generation removed from slavery, were unknowing participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Believing they were receiving treatment, these men were actually being studied for the effects of syphilis on African American men. As a result, two of them died, and one of them was left handicapped for the rest of his life. The fourth, a stubborn man who had the audacity to ask questions of his doctors, got out of the “treatment” by, against doctor’s orders, receiving a shot of a new, experimental medicine, penicillin, which ultimately saved his life.

The story is shown through the eyes of nurse Eunice Evers, an African American nurse who was responsible for the care of these men. Passionate about her job, Miss Evers deeply cared for her patients, and her justification, and compliance with her doctor’s orders is the focus of the play. Miss Evers is given every reason from “if they do this study, they’ll be first in line for treatment when funding becomes available,” to “this study will promote equality between Caucasians, and African Americans” to justify the study. There are obvious overtones of the Holocaust, and many other historical atrocities present, and the character of Miss Evers is quite reminiscent of Hannah Schmitz in the recent film The Reader. Indeed, it is the universality of this story that makes it so heartbreaking. At the same time that it creates a vivid, specific culture, namely the African American culture of the 30’s and 40’s, its metaphors are continually surprising. You will recognize this story, not only in the epic, well known events of world history, but in day-to-day life. Miss Evers, toward the end of the play says she feels that she has been “taken over the hill” (“You know, someone asks you to walk over to a hill. Then when you get there, they say ‘oh, not that hill, the one further on.’ You think, all right, it’s not that far, so you go. Then they say ‘no, that one just a little further on.’ Eventually you figure I’ve gone this far, I might as well just keep going.”) That is exactly what happens to the characters in this play, and, terrifyingly, it’s not too far of a leap to imagine it as a description of today’s society.

Nathan Johnson ©2017  Ben David Pendleton*

The cast of Miss Evers’ Boys is extraordinary. When this play is produced elsewhere, I highly recommend taking this entire cast with it. Reading their bios, I was shocked that this is the off-Broadway debut of some. The characters were not so much played, as embodied. Our sympathies were constantly shifting, and that is a credit to the actors as much as the play. While you left with a strong feeling of what the characters should have done differently, you could also completely identify with each character, and feel sympathy for their actions. This was a true ensemble piece from the word go. Jason Donnell Bush was joyful, innocent, and heartbreaking as Willie, and his tap dancing was top notch. Evander Duck and Alex C. Ferrill hit just the right notes as the doctors making life and death ethical decisions. Marty Austin Lamar was more than loveable as Hodman, and his final scene was heart wrenching. David Pendleton exuded an extraordinary grace as Ben. His gentleness, and patience, especially during the scene where he learned to write his name was perfect. Nedra McClyde had possibly the most difficult role as the nurse, Miss Evers. She hit all the right notes without pushing, or going over the top. We were always with her, and, especially in this role, that was difficult to do.

If this show were on Broadway, instead of the Shell Theater, I would hands down put a bid on Garrett Lee Hendricks being nominated for a Tony for his performance as Caleb Humphries. Caleb possibly goes through the largest character arc, starting as a rather brash, stubborn, argumentative young man, who gradually lets his kind, soft side come out under the care of Miss Evers. The scene where he receives a spinal tap, under the guise of a back shot, was as terrifying as anything out of a Saw film. But of all the characters, he is the one who thinks for himself, and his brashness ends up saving his life. It is joyous to see him in the last scene, years later, after he has become a preacher, and confronts those who hurt him with strength, intelligence and grace.

 As wonderful as the show is, it isn’t perfect. The show is a tad too long (both acts ran over an hour and fifteen minutes.) The beginning takes a little while to warm up, and there are some scenes that seem slightly superfluous. The show truly comes to life during Miss Evers one on one scenes with each of the men. The direction was not always effective. The play often switches place, and time, an effect at first established as a strong lighting change. Those lights did not always occur however, and there was an inconsistency in the overall staging. The design was good on what was obviously a small budget, especially the costumes.

 This is a play that needs to be seen. Entertainment aside (and you will be entertained,) this is an important, and deeply moving work. And I certainly hope that it will have a long, and successful run.


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Venue:
Shell Theater : 300 West 43rd Street