The pandemic piqued our interest in smaller, nimbler projects more than ever before. One of those pieces, an inventive and brave effort from Soul Rep Theatre, narrativizes a timely part of our nation’s history that audiences need to know about. The playwright, Anyika McMillian-Herod, Executive Director and co-founder of Soul Rep, would argue that need is so great that the story bears repeating.
“The subject matter is so relevant today… We’re not telling difficult stories to make people feel bad. We tell difficult stories because we need to face them and move forward.”
Now she’s doing exactly that. Do No Harm, originally written for the stage but adapted for the screen at the height of lockdown, is finally getting its shot at impressing Dallas audiences in person after receiving incredible praise, not to mention a TACA Pop-Up Grant for the film version. With its creative account of the unspeakably horrendous practices that many medical professionals conducted on Black people throughout the era of slavery, the piece sheds light on issues that continue to influence how many Black Americans look at healthcare today.
Coming to the Wyly Theatre next month as a part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, Do No Harm captures the stories of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy – three enslaved women who were subjected to procedures and surgeries without anesthesia by Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, who believed Black people did not feel pain. We sat down with McMillian-Herod to ask about the relevancy of the play and its subject matter – and why it’s critical for audiences at this moment.
&: Anyika, why are you bringing Do No Harm back just one year after the film’s release?
Anyika McMillian-Herod: I was commissioned to write Do No Harm for the stage. I was thrilled that we were able to produce it as a film – our first venture into film – but as a theatre purist, I really want to see it live on stage. For me, live theatre is like worship – being with others, hearing stories and feeling the energy in that space. This is why we’re bringing it back live and in the flesh. As a live production, I believe audiences may react differently to it because it’s so raw. We learned that, because of its intensity, some people chose to watch the film version in pieces.
&: How did audiences respond to the film version? Was it what you were anticipating?
AMH: It has been a beautiful surprise. We learned that this topic resonated with people from all walks of life – across all races, but particularly with women due to the power of the story and the humanization of these characters. We don’t know how the lives of these women ended – but we strived to end the horror story with hope, and I think that resonated.
&: Why do you think audiences need this story now?
AMH: The subject matter is so relevant today. We’ve read about inequities revealed during the pandemic. We’re dealing with this in our world right now. I believe Do No Harm is very healing – and we need to get to a point of healing in our society. What I love about live productions is that we can uncover truths, dreams, and passions, and deal with things head-on so we can walk away feeling enlightened and healed.
During the pandemic, the arts have been a vehicle for escape – people are consuming more, and they aren’t shying away from tough stories. Do No Harm is a tough story, but there’s a lot of beauty in it about the relationship between the three women. There’s laughter and life in this piece as we watch their stories ebb and flow. We’re not telling difficult stories to make people feel bad. We tell difficult stories because we need to face them and move forward, and not make the same mistakes.
&: How has the piece changed in the process of adapting it for film, then bringing it back to the stage?
AMH: The overall process has been a good thing for the piece. For the upcoming live production, we gave the reigns to a new director, Guinea Bennett-Price, Soul Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director and one of the co-founders. We were very intentional about putting the stage production in someone else’s hands. She takes a very Brechtian approach to the design of the play – sparse in terms of set and acting, so it’s very character-focused and stripped down to focus on the people and the story.
&: How did the experience of creating theatre for film change your outlook on what theatre is?
AMH: It confirmed for us what theatre is – it should be adaptable for the venue, whether performed in the street, in a church, traditional theatre, or parking lot. Our ability to adapt to the pandemic situation was inspiring, and a beautiful reminder of why we do what we do and why I fell in love with this craft as a little girl. I co-directed the film with Vickie Washington, and as a company, we all learned how to make a film, and it was successful. Moving forward, we will produce a short film for every season – as a way to increase our reach and keep sharpening our tools and provide unique experiences for local artists. Our third founder, Co-Artistic Director Tonya Holloway, initially wanted to consider a film arm for Soul Rep Theatre, so we had an opportunity to embrace her expertise. We could not have had our most recent season without her.
&: What is the value or importance of theatre – and Do No Harm – for highlighting Black history in a way that speaks to today’s audiences?
AMH: This is one of those hidden stories that fortunately are coming to light in theatre and film. I think we were inundated with stories from the era of enslavement, but it’s important we continue telling those stories. Here we look at it through a different lens, one focused on women, sisterhood, survival, and pain. And it resonates with all people – we can all identify with working together to solve problems. With these characters, we’re not dealing with just names – we’re dealing with real people who lived, and who talked about their lives, their husbands, and their children together. It’s a celebration of our humanity – and it’s about being seen as women and fully-fledged human beings with hope, not just victims.
Tickets to Do No Harm are available at https://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2022/do-no-harm/.