Henrietta Lacks

Nowy Teatr (Poland)

Director: Anna Smolar

Scriptwriters: Anna Smolar, Marta Malikowska, Maciej Pesta, Sonia Roszczuk, Jan Sobolewski


Consulting on dramaturgy: Piotr Gruszczyński

Scenography, costumes: Anna Met

Music: Natalia Fiedorczuk-Cieślak

Cast: Marta Malikowska, Maciej Pesta, Sonia Roszczuk, Jan Sobolewski


Co-producer: Centrum Nauki Kopernik


Premiere: 2017

Duration: 1 h

DATES: 6 October, 19:00; 7 October, 19:00

VENUE: Arts Printing House, Black Hall (Šiltadaržio str. 6, Vilnius)


It is hard to imagine that behind such major scientific breakthroughs as gene therapy, cancer and AIDS treatments lie the cells of a single woman’s body. This woman is Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her knowledge, transferred to the laboratory and successfully propagated for many years before and after her death. Director Anna Smolar in careful theatrical language paints the life of Henrietta Lacks, a black US resident, with precise strokes. After she died in 1951, her cells continue to live not only in laboratories, but in the bodies of many of us, as they became the basis of the polio vaccine. At the same time, Henrietta is also a victim of systemic racism rooted in the world. 

Kristina Savickienė

Artistic Director of the Festival


An anonymous hero or a victim of medicine? When scientists for their research use someone who doesn’t know anything about it.  In addition, that person is a black woman, a terminally ill patient. Her cells have been taken for scientific experiments and have suddenly become an important factor in humanity’s quest to overcome mortality.


Baltimore, 1951. An African-American tobacco plantation worker, 31, Henrietta is suffering from uterine cancer. Without her knowledge, the doctor takes samples of her tissue cells that he intends to use for research purposes. For the first time in medical history, cells survive and multiply unexpectedly under laboratory conditions, abbreviated as HeLa, according to the patient’s initials. Henrietta knows nothing about HeLa cells. When she dies, her five orphaned children receive no financial support, but the dishonest doctors who conducted the research, gain a lot of symbolic and material capital.


HeLa cells have an unprecedented ability to multiply at high speeds. They are the backbone of the polio vaccine, helping researchers make significant progress in the fight against cancer and AIDS, significant advances in in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene therapy.


A Hollywood-worthy melodrama! But wouldn’t it be better to look at the story of Henrietta Lacks from a modern perspective and consider the issue of cell ownership? Would scientific progress have been possible if we had the right to demand financial compensation for the use of our tissues? Should a price list for human tissues be made?


And what would be the cost to healthy and cancer-prone people? Which would be more valuable? We may have doubts about the democracy of medicine: who earns from it? Who uses it? But at the same time, somewhere out there, our cells are regularly collected for research, after which they live their lives. Do you miss them? Do you think about them?


„In Henrietta Lacks, we created a drama based on real scientific and biographical facts, but at the same time we added and woven in some fictional moments as well. In this way we were able to ask questions about ethics, people’s expectations for science, doctors, progress. This fictional reality gives us an opportunity to ask more universal questions on the topic under analysis.

The theme was suggested by Rafał Kosewski, curator of the Warsaw Science Center, who invited to create this play for the Przemiany Festival. I had never heard of HeLa Cells or Henrietta Lacks before. Perhaps this is what made this project the most interesting. It is astonishing that a woman whose cells have given so much to humanity is so little known”.

Anna Smolar


About the creator

The creator of the documentary theater, Anna Smolar, is already familiar to the Lithuanian public: she conducted creative workshops at the 2017 contemporary drama festival Versmė organized by the Lithuanian National Drama Theater, and in 2018 at this festival readings of the play Henrietta Lacks took place. At the initiative of this theater, the director created a play about violence in the workplace Slow Motion, which we saw at the end of 2019 in the National Gallery of Art. Born in France and raised in a Polish family, Anna Smolar graduated in literature from the University of Sorbonne in Paris and currently lives and works in Poland. Anna is considered to be one of the most interesting representatives of Polish theater of her generation, working as an assistant to Krystian Lupa, Jacques Lassale and Andrzej Seweryn and collaborating on film production with Agnieszka Holland. The director chooses social, not always comfortable, but relevant topics for her work: “I like when the topics come to me themselves, when working in the theater allows me to get to know the world better. And I am interested in a variety of material, whether it would be a topic close to me, perhaps a personal one, or quite distant and unusual,” says the artist.



This performance helps to create monuments to those we owe



The Young Actors Quartet is committed to telling us about the discovery of HeLa cells in reverse order, from the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep, to the scientific success with staggering media coverage in 1996, while saying that like Dolly, Henrietta Lacks was somehow seen as a subject of study and experimentation and not as a living being.

Nicolas Naizy / Le Vif