SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a slim yet painful chapter in the civil rights history books. For a shocking 40-year period beginning in 1932, 399 black sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis. The U.S. Public Health Service hoodwinked the men into believing they were being treated so the untreated progression of the disease could be formally studied.
“That’s how the medical profession viewed people of color in the 1930s,” said Toni Byrd, “We were used as guinea pigs.”
Byrd is the director of “Miss Evers’ Boys” in its Utah premiere. The memory play dramatizes the notorious government study in a coproduction with the Grand Theatre Institute and the Etta Grace Black Theatre Company Byrd cofounded.
“It started out as a treatment program, but — depending upon who read — some people feel that the funds were pulled deliberately while other authors feel that the money was pulled because of the Depression,” she said. “No one will know that for sure.”
The titular Miss Evers is based on the real-life Eunice Evers, the black nurse who recruited the men to the experiment. In the play she takes the role of narrator, recalling for a shocked 1972 congressional hearing the diabolical experiment.
The study began as a six-month experiment and then the men would be treated. Six months became a year, then two, until 14 years had gone by. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as it was called, was finally exposed as “the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.” Evers knew the treatments the men received were not the “magic bullet” of penicillin, and she was aware of the deceitful tactics employed to prevent the patients from receiving the miracle drug. But the nurse never told her patients, even while syphilis ate away at their nervous systems.
“Evers never felt that anyone had done any wrong,” Byrd said. “She felt what she and the other doctors had done and how they handled the study was ethical. I don’t want to use the word ‘proud,’ but she stood by what they did.”
“I was shocked to learn that the play is based on real events,” said Latoya Rhodes, who plays the role of Evers. “She was a loyal woman, with faith in her career and what she’s doing. She’s the centerpiece of two different worlds, between medicine and compassion.
“She’s an everyman, who asks the question ‘What would you do in this situation?’ I’d love for people to leave the show asking this question.”
The 1992 play is by David Feldshuh, a theater professor at Cornell University. “Miss Evers’ Boys” was suggested by the book, “Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment,” by James H. Jones, and by a number of primary sources.
After staging “The Meeting,” which depicts a supposed meeting of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Miss Evers’ Boys” is the Etta Grace Black Theatre Company’s second production.
“A lot of the theater that happens promotes the stereotypical victimization of the black community, which is, yes, part of our history,” Byrd said. “But there are so many other stories. We’re trying to promote the more positive, uplifting part of the history.”
If you go:
What: “Miss Evers’ Boys”
Where: The Grand Theatre
When: Feb. 2-18
How much: $10-$24, with discount for seniors and students