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Monique Gaffney On 'Being Henrietta'

January 30, 2012 1:10 p.m.


Monique Gaffney, Artist in residence at the Thurgood Marshall College, UC San Diego, and creator of "Being Henrietta."

Related Story: Monique Gaffney On 'Being Henrietta'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego's major universities continue an unprecedented year-long academic and cultural exploration of one book. It's the best-selling immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Sloot. A stage production at UC San Diego, called being Henrietta, and its creator is my next guest. Monique Gaffney is a well-known actor here in San Diego and has been a guest on this program. Welcome back.

GAFFNEY: Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Can you start us off by reminding us about the story of Henrietta Lacks?

GAFFNEY: Sure, the story of Henrietta Lacks, and in particular my version of the story, explores her life. Henrietta lack was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge, and it became one of the most important tools in medicine. What they discovered was that she had an immortal cell line called hela cell, and they have been used for all kinds of research, including the polio vaccine, gene mapping, clone, stem cell research, it goes on and on and on. The list is enormous.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the key factors is, no one asked her.

GAFFNEY: No one asked her.

CAVANAUGH: They just took the cells and used them for this whole line of research and never with her permission.

GAFFNEY: Never with her permission. And in the early 1950s, there was no informed consent, however, when you are taking tissue from another human being and using it for purposes that they are not aware of, that's just unethical to me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the 1-woman show that we're creating called being Henrietta is a kind of work in progress. What does that actually mean? What will people see when they attend this performance on Thursday?

GAFFNEY: In its first sort of manifestation of the script where we are now, it is a 1-woman show. It may be up to three people. But it's exploring in particular four ethical issues, I would say, tissue ownership, the idea of immorality, human subjects/clinical research, and one other as far as looking at human experimentation on African Americans in particular women. So we're just starting to skim the surface on that issue.

CAVANAUGH: You have something from the beginning of the play that you are going to read for us to give us a feeling for this particular production.


CAVANAUGH: Would you do that for us.

GAFFNEY: I certainly will! I'd love to.

CAVANAUGH: Here's Monique Gaffney from the page to stage production, being Henrietta.

GAFFNEY: I dream about her all the time. I always see her face. Just her face. Her skin is sweet, yellow. Her eyes, soft, weary. Who she is, I'm not sure. But she knows. She knows that there's something wrong with me. The something growing inside of me, and it's moving, spreading. Every month without fail, I feel it. In the right side of my lower abdomen, my pelvis slightly swells. My body aches in very unfamiliar places. At first I thought it had to do with age. Maybe. Maybe not. But the pain is deep. It brings me down to my knee, and I writhe like I'm in battle with an ancient spirit. An enormous unnamed force, its presence only made known by its staccato rhythms, followed by a river of blood and tissue. And I'm afraid that it's something that I can't cut out. And that's rooted too deep, and it reminds me that I'm not in control, in control of life, in control of death, in control of anything. But I think she knows. She knows how to rid it. Every night I dream about her. I always see her face. Just her face. Her skin, sweet, her eye, weary. She's talking. Trying to tell me something. But as hard as I study her face, I can never hear it. She knows. She knows.

CAVANAUGH: That's Monique Gaffney, performing just a small piece of her show called being Henrietta, that will be performed at UC San Diego this week. And there will be a panel of experts be, won't there?


CAVANAUGH: After the performance. What is that discussion going to be like? What do you foresee that the areas that are -- that this performance is going to open up?

GAFFNEY: Well, a number of areas. Of course we will be talking about the artistic side as far as the class action between myself and a fellow co-writer. MFA play writing student Jeff Augustine. This will be moderated by Allen Havis, a provost of Thurgood Marshall college. And two guests from UCSD school of medicine, one would will be Mary Devereux, who will be discussing biomedical ethics. And Mart A. Norman who is a professor in the department of psychiatry. So we're really going to take a broad look and compare the artistic side, along with these bion medical, ethical issues. So it's going to be very interesting. We're going to talk about the creative process, and at the same time we're going to talk about how we are taking these particular issues, as far as tissue ownership, immortality, informed consent, and looking at it through the lens of this woman and her life.

CAVANAUGH: This is quite a project. It's a multicampus focus on this one book, are the immorality life of Henrietta Lacks. And all the aspects this story opens up. Did you turn to any other sources in creating your work?

GAFFNEY: Plenty of sources. With the great success. The book, in particular, in the back, there is a large section of references and resources, which I thoroughly consulted on the campus of UCSD, and also if you go John Hopkins' university website, there's a lot of information. Because this is such a campus-wide effect -- there's a lot of participation. So there's a great Henrietta Lacks resource center at gross month, and resources at Cal State San Marcos. Because it's such a prominent thing, and everybody's involved, access to a lot of that information is readily accessible. So it's been wonderful.

CAVANAUGH: There are so many technical issues that this story brings up, so many theoretically issues that this story brings up. Where is Henrietta in all of this? There's a possibility that perhaps she gets lost?

GAFFNEY: Right. That was one of my main concerns in terms of creating this piece. I didn't want to focus on all of the many issues that come out of her sister. I really wanted to focus on fleshing out a three dimensional character and really tell you who this woman was. Obviously from my point of view, but to give her that humanity that she deserves so she's not just a cell. So she's not just this random woman. She had children, a husband, this life as short as it was, that she had this full life before it became this other thing. So that's one of my greatest efforts that I'm putting into the script, that I really want to fresh her out.

CAVANAUGH: Give her humanity back.

GAFFNEY: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you taught an honors seminar at UCSD about the ethics of the Henrietta lacks case. How did the students and their work lay the foundation for this play?

GAFFNEY: When you're trying to put together a class, and you're, like, what do I really want to research? What I finally decided on was this class called art and activism, the bioethics of the Henrietta Lacks story. So I had a wonderful group of honor students who were very diligent about doing the work, so that made it easier for me as a teacher. They in their groups, two groups of four, created their own page to stage scenes and they utilized the immortal life, as well as a book called medical apartheid. So from these four issues, tissue ownership, informed concept, and human subjects research, they created these lovely scenes. And will so we had these very in-depth, facilitated discussions about the issues, and what was exciting, and that we thought an audience wanted to hear, and then they created very short papers at the I understand about what they thought was exciting, and what mattered to them.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Another fascinating aspect of this is as artists and residents, Monique, you also created a play about Anita nil, of course, the woman who testified during the Clarence Thomas trial. Not trial but his hearings to be on the US Supreme Court. You found some linkage between the two women, Anita hill, and Henrietta Lacks.

GAFFNEY: Initially, when I was working on the Anita hill piece, and this was a great suggestion by Allen Havis, and I collaborated with a senior, a literature major, Tyler, who wrote a lovely piece. When we initially collaborated. I said there are some strong similarities between Anita approximate hill and Henrietta Lacks. You have these two, strong, black women whose humanity has been stripped from them in different experiences, obviously, but they come in my eyes on top. And they live through that dehumanizing experience. You have Anita hill, who is just on one hand seen as this villain and having destroyed a man's career, and why'd she bring it up so late, and all these other questions, and then you have Henrietta, who I wouldn't say is so much in terms of her experience dehumanized, other than the fact that they took the cells and what happened as a result. So one happened during the life of one woman. And one happened sort of after her life. And I thought in terms of contrasting what happened with a person who's still Alive, being Anita hill, and someone who's passed away in terms of Henrietta lacks and what that means.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the fact that Henrietta Lacks has a family in, and did you contact them or tell them about your play at all?

GAFFNEY: No, I haven't as of yet. In the development of the piece right now, which is very educational, it's open and free to the public. Right now, I'm just in the beginning stages of researching it. Of and I feel like in terms of what happened to her family as is well-explained and talked about in the book itself, out of respect for their privacy, and also to not come into it not knowing a lot, because I know a little bit, but I do not know the whole story, I didn't feel like I should act contact them and say this is what I'm going to do. Because right now, I'm still developing it. But my hope is, of course, to contact the family and say this is a piece that I'm working on to honor your mother, to honor her memory, to honor your family. This is is for me as an artist a way to express that. And I hope I can help put her story out there further.

CAVANAUGH: And getting her story out there further is part of UCSD's black history month celebration. This page to stage play is called being Henrietta, this Thursday at 6:00, at the Wagner theatre on the campus of UCSD. Thank you so much for telling us about this.

GAFFNEY: And just one thing, there's a patio reception at 6:00. And the actual performance is at 7:00.

CAVANAUGH: And as you say, anybody can attend, right?

GAFFNEY: Anybody. Open to everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.

GAFFNEY: Thank you for having me.