BEHIND THE SHEET, a new historical play written by Charly Evon Simpson, dramatizes the story of five plantation slave women and their role in the medical breakthrough that doctor J. Marion Sims made in 1840s Alabama. Sims invented a surgical treatment for vaginal fistulas, a painful post-childbirth condition. The play was developed through the Sloan Foundation’s partnership with the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where it premiered on January 17 and has been extended through February 10.
The star of BEHIND THE SHEET is Naomi Lorrain (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, ELEMENTARY). Her character, Philomena, undergoes 30 experimental surgeries without anesthesia as the doctor experiments with materials and stitches that do not work. “Embodied with wonderfully delicate ambivalence by Ms. Lorrain, Philomena is the audience’s surrogate in coming to consciousness,” Ben Brantley writes in the New York Times, which selected BEHIND THE SHEET as a Critic’s Pick. We spoke with Lorrain by phone on January 18.
Science & Film: How familiar were you with this history when you read the script for BEHIND THE SHEET?
Naomi Lorrain: I knew a lot about it, because as an undergrad at Yale I was a History of Science/History of Medicine, African American Studies double major and I was pre-med. I wanted to be an OBGYN so my life was in health, the history of women’s health, and black women’s health. I am a playwright as well and I remember wanting to apply for a Sloan and EST [grant] and thought, maybe I’ll write about this. But when I went online and saw Charly was already writing about it I thought, that’s perfect. So when she brought me in to do the workshop of the play, I really understood what she was talking about. I knew what fistulas were. I’d seen a number of births because I worked with a gynecologist when I was senior and during my summers between years at Yale. I was very knowledgeable about what she was talking about, and passionate about it. I always talked about those enslaved black women whose bodies were used to advance the field of gynecology. I read J. Marion Sims’ autobiography at the Yale Medical Library as research for a paper I was writing.
NL: I know. Charly has done a lot of research, more than I had done I’m sure. But I read Medical Apartheid when I was in undergrad and I was familiar with the Sims speculum and his legacy: [he was the] president of the American Medical Association, [he founded] the Woman’s Hospital [the first U.S. hospital for women], all of it.
Megan Tusing and Naomi Lorrain, Photo by Jeremy Daniel
S&F: Were there parts of the story that you were particularly excited to see in told the script?
NL: The thing I was most excited about talking about, and it doesn’t even pertain to Sims specifically, was the fellowship between black slave women during this extreme time of oppression, pain, and exploitation. That’s what excited me most about the script. I feel like we see a lot of black pain; black stories are about slavery, or jail, or drugs and poverty a lot of the time, not all of the time, and I was excited about this script because even throughout this pain [the women] found community. They were making perfume—that’s one thing I didn’t know about, I didn’t know there was a perfume practice, so that was very exciting for me. The black female fellowship and community that we’re showing on stage, and five very distinct black female characters, that is exciting. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Charly fleshed out five women that usually only get one representation in a play or in a movie. She did five. It is beautiful.
S&F: How has it been for you to live inside this story for the past few months?
NL: My goodness. It’s definitely a lot. My husband got to see it opening night on Monday. He’s been wonderful throughout this whole process, but I’ve been a little quieter. Not even depressed, because it’s an honor to be a vessel to tell this story, but a little more reserved with my energy and my time. Being Philomena as an actor, you have to practice self-care. The training that I’ve gotten at NYU Grad Acting has really come into use; I’m able to do this role, be fully present on stage, and then really let it go and step out of her, step out of that world, and go back to my normal life and normal breathing pattern. Everything about her is different in a way. So it’s just been hard at times, only because on stage it’s hard to hear how the character of Josephine talks to me. And the physical pain, the slowing down of my physical body in order to embody Philomena’s physical body is a little taxing. It makes me so cognizant of the physical nature of slavery and the physical nature of oppression.
It’s a lot to bear but I will say this, it has been exponentially better because of the people at the helm, Charly and Collette. I feel like as a black female playwright and director, their approach to this has been the safest room I’ve ever been in. They are so protective of me as an actor and of the story and the legacy of these women that I have to give it to them. I think it is so much easier because of who I am working with. The entire team, across the board regardless of race and gender, but specifically because of who Collette and Charly are has been helpful to me.
S&F: I found myself paying a lot of attention to the physicality of childbirth too, and the pain thereafter.
NL: Even though I’m super excited about the black female sisterhood portrayed on stage, I’m also excited about us talking about women’s issues on stage. The ways in which medicine still addresses pregnancy, even just discussing the vagina, I think George [the doctor] says at the end that he wasn’t excited to delve into this field because of all the mucous and things that plague a woman’s body. And I’m like, wow, that’s a great line that Charly wrote because if something plagues a body then it’s a disease. But having a uterus is not a disease. I feel like physicians in that time believe that though, and maybe some physicians in this time. Like, to be a woman’s doctor, to have to lower oneself to this occupation is such a gross thing to do. I don’t understand why still to this day some people feel that the woman’s body is grosser, and reproductive health is gross. It’s just an excuse not to learn about it and be educated, and be a responsible sexual partner or a responsible, fill in the blank. To claim ignorance you get to claim irresponsibility, which is pretty prevalent in our culture when it comes to gender.
Joel Ripka and Naomi Lorrain, Photo by Jeremy Daniel
S&F: It’s striking that the speculum was invented J. Marion Sims, by a man, and that there haven’t been any huge innovations since then. Given your background, I just wonder if you have any insight into why?
NL: You know, much as things have progressed in the field of medicine, and racial relations, in the big scheme of things we haven’t progressed that much, unfortunately. When you look at pay gap, for instance. In the play, Sally says, could you imagine if we were the doctors? We sew and mend all the time, what would happen if we were the doctors? I hadn’t thought a lot about the fact that we still use the speculum and how odd it is that a man formed all of this and we haven’t questioned it to this day. I can admit that, like what Philomena says, how am I supposed to imagine it if I’ve never experienced it? To imagine a world without sexism, to imagine a world without racism, to imagine a world where I see the things that have been created and question their creation, and say maybe I could make a new version that’s better because of the body that I have, maybe I know a little more about what would be best. That is brainwashing that I’ve never thought about, I had originally,just acceptedthat he wasthe father of gynecology, and then I learned in college that, like many of our historical figures, he was complicated and varied and maybe [the invention] wasn’t all his doing, you know what I mean? So that made me question it and that’s why I love education, but it’s crazy that we still use the speculum. There might be something better that we can invent. There probably is, by a woman. That’s about ideology, understanding that you have the ability and the agency to rethink something that has never been rethought before. That’s what this play is trying to do. What you just brought up, that’s what it’s doing within me now.
S&F: Have any of the other projects that you’ve worked on—
NL: Combined both the loves of my life? No!
S&F: Yeah [laughs]
NL: I am a playwright too so my plays are medically based I guess, but this is the project where I feel like my worlds are equally colliding and I’m overjoyed to be a part of it because now I feel fully realized. You’re an actor, but you’re really into medicine, it really confuses people, went to Yale, what are you doing? But this is what I’m doing. This is exactly how I want my body and time to be spent, telling these stories that are so important to me, my ancestors, and to the world. We benefit from the exploitation of these women. It sucks not to know that. Say you were the guinea pig, and no one knows you were the guinea pig so there is no building with your name, there is no statue with your name, there is no generational knowledge of your existence though there are generational benefits because of your existence. It just, it hurts in a different way. It’s like you are forgotten but what you did can never be forgotten because we benefit.
S&F: What are you working on now?
NL: I wrote a play when I was in grad school called RIGOR MORTIS that was about med school students in an anatomy class, and we’re supposed to be turning that into a TV show and that’s been in the works for a while. I’m still passionate about writing I just got really busy on the acting side and I want to give my all to this so that draft will be coming at some point.
Cristina Pitter, Naomi Lorrain, and Nia Calloway, Photo by Jeremy Daniel
BEHIND THE SHEET is written by Charly Evon Simpson and directed by Colette Robert. In addition to Naomi Lorrain, the cast includes Nia Calloway (ALL ONE FOREST), Cristina Pitter (BALLS), Shawn Randall (TRAVISVILLE), Megan Tusing (MOPE), Jehan O. Young (THINK BEFORE YOU HOLLA), Amber Reauchean Williams (NO KING IN ISRAEL), Joel Ripka (AMERICAN JORNALERO) and Stephen James Anthony (WAR HORSE). BEHIND THE SHEET runs through February 10 at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
[To learn more about BEHIND THE SHEET, read our interview with the playwright Charly Evon Simpson.]