Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts is churning out talented students, whose acting chops are on full display during their production of Miss Evers’ Boys. Because we know how tragically this story ends, it’s even more nerve-racking to watch how the characters lead us to the bittersweet conclusion.
Miss Evers’ Boys is re-tells the story of the controversial Tuskegee Study, a 40-year experiment that followed the progress of untreated syphilis in a group of African-American sharecroppers. Miss Eunice Evers (a stunning Mary Miller), a nurse, is at the center of the scandal, as she tries to help the four of the men in the study, but gets manipulated by white Dr. John Douglas (a brilliant Eric Humphries) and his Black colleague Dr. Eugene Brodus (a fiery Henian Boone) whose only purpose is to serve science and supposedly their respective communities.
The study begins as a way to aid poor farmers of the South by providing them with treatments for syphilis. After the money stops coming from Washington, the doctors revise the study to chronicle the effects of untreated syphilis in these men for forty years. Even after penicillin becomes available as a way to treat the disease, the men are still not given proper care. Miss Evers becomes a friend to the men, but remains fiercely loyal to her employers. As a result of her strong work ethic and the blatant racism that drives the experiment, men die and others suffer enormously.
The standout performances come from the young men who portray the four sharecroppers in the study. Jeff Kirkman, III (Caleb Humphries), Adarius Smith (Ben Washington), Stanley A. Jackson, III (Willie Johnson), and Edwin Brown, III (Hodman Bryan). All of them have the potential to be future stars. Their acting is, at times subtle and effective yet energetic but heartbreaking. Jackson’s Willie dreams of becoming a dancer in the Cotton Club. He lives for dancing. His zest is infectious, lively and true to form as he shows new moves or practices for hours to perfect a new step. Jackson gives Willie a voice in music along with continuous eye-catching jumps and feet taps and his slide into depression after syphilis makes it impossible for him to become a world-renowned dancer is painful to watch. Brown also shines at Hodman, with a Southern accent to die for and comic timing many would kill to have. What truly makes the play effective is how well these four men work together. The energy is at highest peak when these four are on stage together or interacting with Miss Evers.
The acting from Miller as Miss Evers cannot be sidestepped. She seamlessly carries the burden of knowing the men deserved better while simultaneously furthering her own career. Rather than portray Miss Evers as a victim of her situation, Miller chooses to give us a woman full to the brim with love. She has no one to really give all this love to so she chooses to shower it onto these four men whose trust and friendship she yearns for in return.
The most explosive, emotionally charging scenes are those with Miss Evers’ and her “boys.” They trust her completely because she shares the same skin color as they, unaware that she is partly responsible for their impending demise. When two of the men’s health begins to fade as the disease progresses, they still don’t think to suspect anything of Miss Evers – as she has been a constant companion during their participation in the study.
Credit must be given to director Danielle A. Drakes for pulling the best out of these young actors and actresses. The result is the audience viewing a remarkable history lesson in a seemingly brief two hour time frame.
The Ira Aldridge Theater is neither massively huge nor impossibly small, which is why the set fits so well inside its walls. Much of the play takes place in an old school house complete with a blackboard and student chairs on one side – and the offices and examination rooms of the doctors and Miss Evers on the other. Though the school house serves as the backdrop, Miss Evers and the four men navigate a clinic, music contests, and car rides to those contests all on the same stage just by moving a chair here or a bench there to simulate a new setting. Reggie Ray’s costumes fit the era perfectly, right down to Hodman’s coveralls and Willie’s suspenders. The switch from the 1930s and 1940s to the 1970s was clearly noticeable from the actor’s wardrobe, not the few gray hairs and slow gaits signaling old age.
Watching this play may not be an easy feat – due to the alarming subject matter and the fact that the U.S. government basically condoned an immoral, racist scientific experiment for forty years. That’s all the more reason to get a ticket and watch these performances. Don’t miss it!
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 1o minute intermission.
Miss Evers’ Boys runs through October 9th, at Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202-) 806-7700, or purchase them at the box office.