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Performing HeLa: theatrical bodies and living remains
  1. Emma Cox
  1. Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emma Cox, Drama, Theatre and Dance, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey, UK; emma.cox{at}


As a biomedical entity that has been the subject of a plethora of artistic and cultural projects, HeLa, the first immortal human cell line, calls for investigations into the human. Extracted and cultured from the cervical tumour of African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950s’ Baltimore, HeLa’s robust capacity to grow has ensured its role in numerous medical advances. The first part of this essay synthesises scientific, sociocultural, familial and philosophical perspectives on HeLa, while the second half applies these perspectives to a reading of a theatrical production, HeLa (2013), written and performed internationally by black British artist Adura Onashile. The discussion considers ways in which prevailing cultural narratives that situate Lacks as a victim, dispossessed of bodily agency in life and after death, might delimit productive possibilities for thinking about Lacks as a contributor to biotechnological progress, and about HeLa as a living remain. Lacks’ labour in the creation of HeLa may have been unwitting, but her role in biotechnological progress is profound in that it is constitutive. Onashile’s solo performance—its deft choreography moving across the subjectivities of patient, physician and family—presents the political fact of black female corporeality as part of its exploration of scientific innovation. The theatrical registers of Onashile’s HeLa open up and nuance imaginings of Lacks/HeLa, moving beyond monolithic conceptions of medical research by creatively investigating Lacks’ scientific contribution in the midst (and in the wake) of medical exploitation.

  • theatre
  • medical ethics/bioethics
  • Medical humanities
  • drama

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

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Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.