A film based on Cornell Professor David Feldshuh's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, Miss Evers' Boys, will make its debut on HBO Feb. 22 at 9 p.m. The program also will be shown March 2, 6, 8, 11 and 16. The film is the cornerstone of HBO's Black History Month programming.
Miss Evers' Boys, which premiered on the stage in 1989, tells the story of a 40-year government study, which began in 1932, on the effects of untreated syphilis on some 400 impoverished African-American males. The men were not advised they had the disease nor that they were subjects of a study. Only 127 men survived the study. The title character is an African-American public health nurse who participates in the study.
The film, a production of HBO NYC in association with Anasazi Productions, stars Emmy winner Alfre Woodard in the title role and the Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne as a patient in the secret experiment. Fishburne also served as executive producer with Robert Benedetti. The cast also features Ossie Davis, Craig Sheffer and Joe Morton. The film was directed by Joe Sargent, produced by Kip Konwiser and Kern Konwiser and written for the screen by Walter Bernstein.
Woodard has had lead roles in such films as Primal Fear, How to Make an American Quilt and Passion Fish, and was nominated for an Oscar for Cross Creek. On television she has appeared on L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues, and won Emmy Awards for both roles.
Fishburne's movie credits include Searching for Bobby Fischer, Boyz N the Hood and What's Love Got to Do with It? for which he received an Oscar nomination for best actor. He won a Tony and Drama Desk award for Two Trains Running.
"What HBO has done with this project is first-class dedication to quality," said playwright Feldshuh, a professor of theater arts and artistic director of Cornell's Center for Theatre Arts.
Feldshuh, a consultant on the script, visited the cast in production in Atlanta last October. "In the best way, the experience reminded me of doing theater," he said. "I believe the actors and crew were doing this project in part because they felt this was a story they wanted to tell. They made personal sacrifices to make sure the story was told."
The play and movie, he said, are dedicated to exploring questions of trust and betrayal and Miss Evers' struggle to find some moral ground in this wrenching tug of war between her duty and the men she cares about.
Feldshuh is pleased with the treatment his work has received in the film. "The movie takes us to Macon County and brings us a detail of reality that you don't try for on stage," Feldshuh said. "Theater is much more selective about what it's going to show. The movie provides some interesting psychological nuances from the characters with the use of close-ups that you can't always get on stage."
The film develops more fully the romantic relationship between Miss Evers and one of the male patients, a relationship that is only suggested in the play. "The movie is much more of a love story," Feldshuh said. "But the key elements and the spirit of the play are well adapted to the screen."
The play, which was the second most widely performed play in regional theaters in 1992, has received more than 20 inquiries about bringing it to television or the big screen, including one from Ed Asner; but Feldshuh contends the story may have been too controversial for some.
"It's a hard story to tell," said Feldshuh, who also is a medical doctor. "It's about realities that people don't want to recognize, such as the fact that Macon County had a large number of syphilis cases among its African-American male population. The reason was not morality but the lack of education. Others may have thought that the play depicts an African-American woman betraying African-American men and that's not a politically correct message, but it's really about the dilemma she finds herself in and how she deals with that. Nurse Evers is a tragic figure, caught between her duty to the nursing profession and the love she felt for her patients.
"I'm grateful that HBO felt that the overall voice of the play was worthwhile," Feldshuh said.
Feldshuh's play is also the focus of an educational video and study guide. The 45-minute video, Susceptible to Kindness: Miss Evers' Boys and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study which features scenes from the play and interviews with medical experts and social scientists, has been used at Cornell Medical College in New York and other schools to examine racisim, classism, medical ethics and human experimentation. The video was directed by Daniel Booth of Cornell University Media Services; co-produced by