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Re-Creating a Nightmare of Good Intentions : Dr. David Feldshuh's 'Miss Evers' Boys' examines a dark hour in medicine: the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study.

July 15, 1990|BARBARA ISENBERG

As Dr. David Feldshuh was writing his play about the notorious 40-year-long "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," he faced a conundrum: He wanted the play to be gripping drama. But he also wanted it to tackle complex questions about medical ethics.

He got a gauge of his success the night his play, "Miss Evers' Boys," premiered at Baltimore's Center Stage last fall. During one scene that re-creates a spinal tap, an audience member fainted, and Feldshuh was called to the balcony to treat him.

"It was an interesting kind of nexus of my life as a playwriting physician," Feldshuh says. "I'm there as a playwright, looking at the play to see if it works. And I find myself practicing medicine. Does this mean it works? Or that it works too well?"

Los Angeles audiences can make their own decisions once the play opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday. Winner of the 1989 New American Play Award, "Miss Evers' Boys" dramatizes the U.S. Public Health Service "study" from 1932 to 1972 in which 400 Macon County, Ala., blacks who had syphilis were falsely led to believe they were receiving treatment--while doctors merely observed the progression of their disease.

By turning that study into a workable drama, Feldshuh follows a theatrical tradition that dates back to Shakespeare's histories, not to mention Greek tragedy. Again and again, reality has provided raw material for the stage. It was only a matter of time until so tragically powerful a news story made it to the stage or screen.

The play's setting is Macon County during the Depression--a place of poverty, minimal education, and even more minimal medical care. The promise of hot meals and burial stipends lures human guinea pigs into a medical program where patients get some "tonic" and pills maybe once a year, suffer through painful and often useless tests, and don't get penicillin treatment even after it becomes commonplace. (See story, Page 84.)

Against that larger backdrop, Feldshuh weaves his tale of four fictitious tenant farmers and their nurse, Eunice Evers. As their similarly afflicted friends begin to get better from penicillin they are denied, Miss Evers' boys drink May tea and sit in the moonlight to stave off pain and disability.

They trust in the government and, more importantly, in their Nurse Evers. She cares about them, drives them to the doctor, and assures them they won't have to be buried in feed sacks like other poor blacks. After the first 14 years, each gets a "certificate of appreciation" and $14--"a dollar a year," Evers explains.

According to Feldshuh, the initial impetus for the Tuskegee Study back in 1931 was not so reprehensible: a doctor's suggestion to monitor black syphilis sufferers for six months or a year, using that study as a wedge to get medical funds for poor blacks. That goal that was never realized. Instead, the study became a self-perpetuating bureaucratic nightmare that went on for 40 years, involved scores of government and private doctors, and only stopped when the Associated Press broke the story in July, 1972.

"This play is not a vendetta," Feldshuh says. "I have for the most part a great deal of respect for the motives of many of the people initially involved. Rather, it is an attempt to understand how well-meaning people fail to see the moral implications of their actions. The question then becomes 'Is there something today that well-meaning people are doing wherein there is also a lack of moral insight?' "

In 1981, when former actor Feldshuh was in his residency in emergency medicine, he read in a medical journal about "Bad Blood," historian James H. Jones' highly regarded book on the Tuskegee Study. After he read it, he couldn't stop--he read medical reports and Congressional testimony and, as the years went by, did personal interviews as well.

"I was drawn to this subject because I recognized feelings in myself that concerned me," says the 46-year-old playwright. "I asked myself a simple question: 'Would I have done what these physicians did had I been there?.' I don't know, but I think I was fearful enough that I wanted to find out exactly how it was they let themselves do it. I wanted to explore the process through which they allowed themselves to participate in something that was clearly in retrospect wrong."

For nearly a decade, and through 27 drafts--so far--he has attempted to first learn from, then teach, the lessons of the Tuskegee Study.

But he was writing a play, not a docudrama. So first, Feldshuh took many of his moral and ethical questions and lodged them dramatically in the character of Nurse Evers. Evers is "suggested by" Eunice Rivers, the real-life Alabama nurse who served as staff, chauffeur and on-site overseer for nearly the study's entirety, although less actively after her retirement in 1965.

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