"MISS EVERS' BOYS" by David Feldshuh, EttaGrace Black Theatre Company, Grand Theatre, through Feb. 18 (801-957-3322 or www.the-grand.org)
SALT LAKE CITY — With a promise of "free doctorin' paid for with a bushel basket of guv'ment money," four black sharecroppers enter the dilapidated Possom Hollow Schoolhouse that will serve as a makeshift hospital ward. The teenage Willie, summoning his scant years of education, writes the word "Aspiration" on the chalkboard as he expresses his dream of dancing at the Cotton Club.
But the lives of the four men, who represent a group of nearly 400, are about to be ruined. A government-backed study will be following the untreated progression of syphilis, rather than extending long-term care and medication they are told they will receive.
Watching the Utah premiere of "Miss Evers' Boys," the excellent 1989 stage adaptation of the real-life notorious 40-year Tuskegee, Ala., syphilis experiment that began in 1932, is a harrowing yet deeply rewarding experience. Director Toni Byrd has assembled a top-notch cast for this expertly devised, sympathetic staging at the Grand Theatre.
As Miss Evers, the black nurse who has recruited her friends and neighbors for the study but grows conflicted as it proceeds, Latoya Rhodes gives a layered, splendid performance. The play alternates between short monologues from the 1972 congressional hearing testimony, spoken directly to the audience, after the study was exposed, and moving scenes of interaction with the patients. Rhodes hits all the notes: plaintive yet proud while testifying, tender yet authoritative in the hospital scenes. She is a forceful presence on stage, with no melodramatics. The growing pain Evers endures is palpable throughout the performance.
Equally impressive is Sean J. Carter as Willie. Carter is engaging as he jubilantly practices his dance steps and heartbreaking as he becomes more disabled, ultimately walking unsteadily with a cane in hand. Willie and the three other patients — Caleb (Lonzo Liggins), Hodman (Ricardo Cumba) and Ben (Gregory Lang) — perform harmonica, washboard and wash bucket at occasional competitions called gillees to accompany Willie's dancing, and name their group in Evers' honor. The actors form a strong ensemble and each of the individual scenes are also beautifully played.
The play's two other characters are doctors, one white and one black, who oversee the experiment. Jeffrey Owen and Brien Jones walk the fine line between being evil and completely dedicated to science.
The pace lags a bit in the second act, as to be expected when the play is a tad too long. "Miss Evers' Boys" is a commendable, beautiful production.