Hagley Open Stage, Christchurch

09/10/2014 - 10/10/2014

Nordmeyer Lecture Theatre, 23A Mein Street, Newtown, Wellington

16/10/2014 - 16/10/2014

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

21/10/2014 - 25/10/2014

The Body Festival 2014

Production Details


The British Council New Zealand in association with Iron Oxide (UK) and Made in Scotland are proud to announce the NZ tour of one of the most thought-provoking, relevant and outstanding pieces of theatre from the UK in recent memory – Adura Onashile in HeLa

1951 Henrietta Lacks walked into the coloured section of the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore with a pain in her abdomen. A biopsy revealed a cancer that would kill her just months later. A cell sample taken without her permission was used as the raw material for some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 100 years. 

Against a backdrop that charts the scientific milestones of the HeLa cell Line; this production seeks to bring Henrietta Lacks back to life, using testimony from her family members, the scientific community and the doctors that treated her. 

HeLa is an engaging exploration of the vast scientific progress made possible by the cells of one, unknown woman. It’s a commentary and history lesson about the fascinating life story of Ms Lacks and her amazing HeLa strain cells that just wouldn’t die.

With wonderfully powerful acting, Adura Onashile brings us a story of institutionalised racism, social reasponsibility and medical ethics. Centered around Henrietta’s family, Onashile plays various roles as the years tick by and the medical discoveries (including vaccines, human genome, stem cells etc.), continue – all the result of the HeLA cells, which were removed and subsequently used by the profession for research without familial consent for over 50 years – a situation that has only very recently been remedied. HeLa highlights the need for full disclosure in an age of increased medical science entrenchment in our societies, with hard-hitting and thought provoking theatre.

Adura Onashile is a writer and charismatic performer with diverse experience in political, verbatim, site-specific and physical theatre. She has worked with companies including the National theatre of Scotland, National Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects, Australia’s foremost site specific company, Chicago Shakespeare Company, St Anne’s Warehouse, The LIFT festival, The Clod Ensemble, The Belarus Free Theatre and Vox Motus. Adura has toured internationally with both the Foreign Commonwealth Office and the British Council. 

 “…a shocking slice of shamefully hidden history … theatrically bold in the telling, with Onashile’s heart-rending performance at its centre” [The Herald]

“The fusion of video, music, monologue and physicality makes HeLa a feast for all the senses. This extraordinary, true story is treated with delicacy and astuteness…” [The Peoples Review]

Thu 09 Oct to Fri 10 Oct 2014  
6pm and 8.30pm 
9th – 10th October Body Festival, Christchurch, New Zealand
Venue: The Open Stage at Hagley College, 510 Hagley Avenue 
Official Website: thebody.co.nz/events/details/549-hela 
Ticket Info: dash Tickets (or ph. 0800 327 484)
Pricing: $20, $15 concessions
Contact Phone: 03 366 7709

Thursday, 16 October 2014  
Otago University Wellington Campus  
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Nordmeyer Lecture Theatre, University of Otago, Wellington – 23A Mein Street, Newtown, Wellington 
Cost:  $25 (non-refundable) 

Tuesday Oct 21 – Saturday Oct 25 2014
7:30pm / Duration: 60min (no interval)
Venue: Q Loft , Queen Street, Auckland
Ticket price: $30-$35 (service fees apply)
– See more at: http://www.qtheatre.co.nz/hela#sthash.9eAQFArk.dpuf


Clever, Compassionate and Concise

Review by Sharu Delilkan 23rd Oct 2014

It appears as if the play has already begun as we file into Q’s Loft space. Solo actress Adura Onashile busily writes on the blackboard with her back facing us and occasionally turns around to mouth words to her ‘other actors’ on stage. Before long you find yourself sucked into Henrietta Lacks’ world, retold with absolute clarity and compassion by the astute and talented Onashile. 

Finding out that HeLa is the first play that she has penned is quite a surprise – something I only realised after the show. The writing is crisp, clear and above all encapsulates the ethical dilemmas that you as audience members come away from the show thinking and debating about for days. [More


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A tragic, marvellous, fascinating, true story told with lucidity and ease

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 22nd Oct 2014

The HeLa cells have become one of the most vital elements of modern medicine, from 1951 onwards. In fact, an estimated 90% or 50 million metric tonnes of cells used in labs worldwide are derived from this ‘immortal line’.[1] But the original cells came from a real woman, Henrietta Lacks. They were also taken without her consent.  

From her first knowing glance to the audience, performer /writer Adura Onashile is fully present in this solo drama. Her 2014 perspective bookends the 60-minute play about Lacks, an unassuming mother of five from Baltimore whose cells, as it turns out, have made medical history. This is a tight, well-developed play that deserves to be seen as it tackles issues of racism, ethics, and the issue of choice or, more particularly, the lack of it. 

HeLa (so-called after the first two letters of the cell donor’s name) charts the last few months of Lacks’ life as she declines from a voracious cancer. It also traces key moments in scientific development that came from her ‘HeLa’ cells.

Onashile’s dramatization – based on Rebecca Skloot’s highly-praised The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – breathes life into the story of a woman who died too young, loved dancing, and who was possibly overwhelmed by the medical jargon of the black section of the John Hopkins Hospital where she died some months after the initial cancer diagnosis. Overall, though, it is the issue of informed consent that drives the narrative. Nobody asked for it. This cutting irony continues to reverberate, as Lacks’ family now cannot afford medical bills of their own.  

Onashile plays several characters with ease, flicking between her narrator-self and Lacks’ children, husband, and medical apprentices or experts. Don’t let the show’s clever weaving of scientific fact put you off; an excellent soundscape and effective AV design track the exponential proliferation of research that came from those first cells.  

Cryogenics, IVF and AIDS research are just a few of the benefactors of HeLa cellular research. Many researchers (mostly men) have won Nobel Prizes for their work with HeLa cells, yet this prestige and recognition sit uneasily next to Lacks’ own relative anonymity. Both the factual and ethical dimensions are played out effortlessly. It’s a tragic, marvellous, fascinating story from real life told with lucidity and ease. 

One characters asks, “What if your spirit’s still in them cells?” This proposition seems to underline the drama, and it’s an intriguing concept that resonates throughout the show. Do cells carry a spiritual DNA?  

My only bugbear with the play is that the emotion which sits underneath the piece is never fully released. I want to experience some form of catharsis, if only for Lacks’ own harrowing demise. Fact and feeling need equal footing here, and for my money the emotional elements need further depth and release for the show to exist on another level.  

That said, Adura Onashile is a fine performer who glides through potentially dense facts like a hot knife through butter. She presents the various arguments of ethics counterpoised with multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical gain, without making science the generic bad guy. Her clarity is a gift. 

In 2013, 62 years after the original cells were taken from Lacks, her descendants were finally invited to be part of a medical research consultation group. Some sense of informed consent is finally being entertained. “The least they could do is remember your name,” Lacks’ daughter says. She’s right, too. HeLa: Henrietta Lacks. A fine, complex solo drama performed with intelligence and ease.  

[1] “A HeLa cell /ˈhiːlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951, from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who eventually died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific as illustrated by its contamination of many other cell lines used in research.

The cells from Henrietta’s tumor were taken by researcher George Gey, who “discovered that [Henrietta’s] cells did something they’d never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow.” Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days. Scientists spent more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on the cells, but some cells from Lacks’s tumor sample behaved differently from others. George Gey was able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and start a cell line. As the first human cells grown in a lab that were “immortal” (they do not die after a few cell divisions), they could be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.”

Source: Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HeLa


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HeLa - educational, compelling and moving

Review by Erin Harrington 10th Oct 2014

Adura Oneshile’s outstanding one woman show HeLa takes as its material one of the most important scientific events of the 20th century: in 1951, 31 year old Henrietta Lacks, a black woman from Baltimore and beloved wife and mother, has cancer cells removed from a tumour on her cervix. These cells, dubbed HeLa, reproduce vigorously and become the first ‘immortal’ cell line, a durable cellular line that continues to divide and, in this case, provides the raw genetic material for many of the most important scientific and biomedical discoveries of the last 70 years, starting with the development of the widespread dissemination of the polio vaccine.

The problem, though, is that Henrietta was never asked, and the cells were taken without her knowledge or permission. This issue of respectful informed consent underpins HeLa, which chronicles the myriad developments that are facilitated by Lacks’ genetic material against the more human element – namely, Lacks’ treatment by those to whom she turned for care, the responses of her loved ones, and broader issues about the development (or, sometimes, lack thereof) of codes of medical ethics.

This is an extraordinary story told with compassion and grace. Adura Oneshile acts as our narrator while also portraying Henrietta Lacks, members of her family, and myriad clinicians and medical technicians. Her character renditions and quick transitions are sharp and skilful. These multiple viewpoints create a tapestry of voices, motivations and concerns that is compelling in its complexity. Onashile manages to carefully balance wonder at and enthusiasm about the immense societal benefits that have come about through the widespread use of Henrietta Lacks’ genetic material with an overwhelming dis-ease about the way that Lacks was firstly mistreated by the medical profession and later erased from the public memory.

Onashile’s narrative and performance are augmented by portions of video that draw from stock and documentary footage,  which highlight the development of the wide range of products and processes that come about thanks to the HeLa cell line – everything from vaccines and gene mapping to nuclear and space research. Meanwhile, over the course of the show the projected image of a small, individual cell divides and proliferates just as Lacks’ own body, abstracted, colonises labs around the world. The audiovisual components of the show, which include an electronic soundscape, are slick and beautifully presented.  The set, which takes advantage of the broad open space of The Open Stage at Hagley, is sparse and functional: a few chairs, a chalkboard, a shrine and a 1950s gurney, which often signals Lacks’ clinical presence through her physical absence.

This sense of cognitive dissonance runs throughout the piece as the allegedly objective nature of science is underpinned by most definitely non-objective and grossly paternalistic treatment of those who, by virtue of their race, gender, education or socioeconomic standing, lack agency.  This is most adeptly highlighted in the way that Onashile juxtaposes a list of scientists who have received top-tier international prizes for their work with the pointed comment by Lack’s daughter, Deborah, that while people and companies have made millions from Lacks’ contribution, her family are unable to afford adequate healthcare and were not meaningfully acknowledged until 2013.

 It is to Onashile’s credit that her exploration of these extremely uncomfortable conceptual and moral bedfellows never descends into polemic. Instead, the audience are asked to celebrate Lacks’ rich life and inadvertent contribution while also being deeply critical about the way that we, as individuals and communities, tend offer our blind faith to those in positions of power in the presumption that they will know and do best.

Other questions abound: in what ways might a person persist through their genetic material? When does a person stop being a person? What rights to people have to their own bodies or the bodies of their family? Do the extraordinary ends justify the awful means?  This is some extremely rich material and Onashile’s intelligent show is simultaneously educational, compelling and moving.


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