This play was suggested by the book, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, by James H. Jones, and by a number of primary sources. It brings to the stage in a fictional way the story of the interaction between an African-American public health nurse assigned to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and four of the African-American participants in the study. Two physicians, one who is head of the Tuskegee Memorial Hospital, and one from the U.S. Public Health Service, are less important characters, but provide the evidence of the government's complicity in the study.

The physical setting of the play is the Possom Hollow Schoolhouse, and there are changing "testimony areas" where a 1972 Senate subcommittee investigation of the Tuskegee study is taking place. The theatrical setting is, however, the conscience and memory of Eunice Evers, the nurse, as she is pulled into and out of the action to give testimony to the audience.

Act One takes place in 1932, and allows the audience to become acquainted with the four African-American men who, along with several hundred others, become part of the study after their blood has been found to test positive for syphilis. The treatment of the infected men with mercury and arsenic comes to an end after six months because of a lack of funds, and a decision is made by the Public Health Service to continue a study of untreated syphilis in these men. A fifty-dollar life insurance policy is given to each man as an inducement to remain in the study.

Act Two carries the lives of the characters through the introduction of Penicillin as treatment for syphilis in 1946--a treatment from which the Tuskegee study patients were excluded--and on to 1972, when the Senate committee hearings were held. The Epilogue is about the big guilts of the government and the little guilts experienced by Miss Evers as she questions her nursing ideals.


In a dramatic way this play tells an important story about human experimentation and the lives of those who were part of an experiment which they did not understand; it is also about the lives of those who were responsible. The play can be used in many ways to stimulate discussion and to ask questions about human experimentation, informed consent, great and small culpability, etc. The characters become real, and it is easy to become involved in the drama of their lives by reading the play, and even more so, when seeing it performed.


David Feldshuh is Professor of Theatre at Cornell University, and Artistic Director of the university's Center for Theatre Arts.

Primary Source

American Theater, Vol. 7, No. 8, November, 1990


Theatre Communications Group

Place Published

New York

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