New York | 1h 30m | Already closed

Behind the Sheet

From 11 critic and 76 member reviews
Members say: Great acting, Absorbing, Thought-provoking, Intense, Intelligent

About the show

EST's new drama confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery.  More…

In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor - her owner - as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, "Behind the Sheet" tells how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

1h 30m | Already closed | Ensemble Studio Theatre (Midtown W)

Front Row Center

“’Behind the Sheet’ tells a story from the early days of gynecology...This absorbing play centers around a particularly debilitating complication arising from difficult child births...Simpson has crafted a drama without sensationalism. Given the unbelievable reality on which it is based, the restraint of both the writing and the intelligent, inventive direction by Robert is near miraculous...The only complaint I have is the pervasive haze...Nevertheless, ‘Sheet’ is not to be missed.” Full Review

Theatre is Easy

“’Behind the Sheet’ is a double-punch in the gut, equally disturbing as an account of medical history and a portrait of life on antebellum Southern plantation. Robert subtly directs a production characterized by earth tones and bathed in warm light. Considering its gruesome subject, the show is surprisingly gentle on the audience’s psyche. Eschewing visual shocks and focusing on human connection, Robert does justice to Simpson’s play and leaves a lot of room for the actors to shine.” Full Review


"Obviously, this is a play for which any sort of a happy ending will be deeply compromised, but what Simpson does so beautifully is show us how these women overcome their suspicions and envy to find support...It's tempting for playwrights to work toward such an end by wallowing in sentimentality. However, it never seems that Simpson, Robert or the talented women portraying these characters are pulling frantically at our heartstrings. The plot unfolds simply and satisfyingly." Full Review

The New York Times

"The production takes on cumulative power in its steady, cleareyed depiction of a time when it was a given that pain would be borne uncomplainingly by human beings regarded as chattel...This is, for the most part, a straightforward, conventional work that is not above plying the clichés of scientific breakthrough dramas of yesteryear...But the context, in this case, casts shifting, unsettling light on such classic elements...'Behind the Sheet' may be a quiet play. But its echoes are thunderous." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

"The cast is exquisitely directed by Robert, who takes us on their journey. Simpson's work is powerful and...shines a light on the enslaved black women and a medical breakthrough that makes us question the costs of health.” Full Review


“I applaud Simpson for tackling a subject matter that hasn’t been explored very much...She’s treated it with respect, skillfully and objectively laying out the facts and letting the prejudices of the times speak frankly for themselves...Although the play’s resolution seems a bit fudged, the playwright has managed to create compelling, three dimensional characterizations that mostly avoid caricature...The production has been expertly directed by Colette Robert." Full Review

Theatre's Leiter Side

“Persuasive in subject matter, writing, and performance…Whether Sims's subjects were willing or not, 'Behind the Sheets' honors them as unsung women whose anguish contributed to women's health…Simpson takes various liberties in altering history for dramatic effect…All of the acting is surprisingly restrained, almost more conversational than theatrical, which works-up to a point. For all its realistic ambience, the…overall tone remains so low key that…it eventually begins to drag.” Full Review

New York Stage Review

"Simpson’s hewing to the recorded facts does sometime give her play the feel of a medical-journal essay, but she has a few dramatist’s wiles up her sleeve to enliven the serious ambience. Her biggest achievement is creating three-dimensional lives for the suffering women...There’s no way of saying that 'Behind the Sheet' is an easy play to watch. It’s hardly mere entertainment. But Simpson’s drama is bold, deserving of attention and understanding." Full Review


"Simpson is still developing her voice as a playwright...Each scene is a little too long and shaggy, there are a few too many characters, and certain plot points fall by the wayside. But Simpson must be commended for giving a voice to the voiceless and it's a brave, unflinching piece from top to bottom. The amount of thought and care that went into its development is evident...'Behind the Sheet' may not be a perfect play, but it's a story that deserves to be heard." Full Review

Time Out New York

"With a sizable cast of nine actors, some playing multiple roles, the plot sprawls off into too many directions; the scenes about the doctor’s marital life and scientific experimentation aren’t as involving as those that center on his subjects. But it’s reassuring that, although the women fear that no one will remember them, Simpson has seen to it that they won’t be forgotten." Full Review


"There is a historical re-enactment quality to 'Behind the Sheet,' as if Simpson did not allow her imagination enough freedom, as if she deferred too much to her research." Full Review

Great acting, Masterful, Must see

See it if I have seen many plays in my lifetime but this play leaves a profound effect on the viewers.While the subject matter was really horrible,the

Don't see it if If you don't won't to witness the barbaric behavior forced on Black women during their enslavement.

Also acting was superb.Every character in this play you either loved or hat... Read more Read less

Exquisite, Great acting, Masterful, Must see, Thought-provoking

See it if You want to see great script, acting, staging, beautiful costume blended in a small theater. A masterful play on a horrific subject

Don't see it if You want something light,dont want to listen story of the slaves told from their perspective,medical experiment on slaves will make you cry

Also This is one of the best show I have seen in a long time. The only reas... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Edgy, Exquisite, Ambitious

See it if you're interested in learning about a true but abhorrent practice done to female slaves in the 1840's. Beautifully acted, and written.

Don't see it if There's no reason not to see it.

Great acting, Intense, Profound, Thought-provoking, Great writing

See it if you want to see an intense, moving play that puts us face-to-face with a shameful chapter of history while giving voices back to these women

Don't see it if you are squeamish about medical operations/blood being discussed or mimed

Also I haven't been able to get this astonishingly good play out of my head... Read more Read less

Heart-wrenching, critical, relevant

See it if If you think it is critical to learn overlooked issues stemming from slavery and the dehumanization of women.

Don't see it if If you don't care about anything serious..

Also It is hard to fully convey the pain of this play, since it is factual.... Read more Read less

Great acting, Absorbing, Great writing, Thought-provoking

See it if you enjoy brilliant acting of a powerful play that explores a dark past in this country's history.

Don't see it if painful depictions of the past exploring the vile abuse of slave women is triggering.

Absorbing, Great acting, Intense, Thought-provoking, Great staging

See it if Very powerful play about Medical experiments on female slaves. Part Fact with some fiction.

Don't see it if You have no interest in that time of history.

Also What happen may not be well known by alot of people. Its is so moving,... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Exquisite, Ambitious, Thought-provoking, Intense

See it if Little known historical subject matter that will illicit strong emotions. Totally memorable, stimulating, vivid performances

Don't see it if Medical procedures make you squeamish and you want something light

Absorbing, Ambitious, Great acting, Intelligent, Thought-provoking

See it if you enjoy plays based on science. This play explores the early days of gynecology and the exploited slave women who participated.

Don't see it if you are uncomfortable with how African American slaves were exploited.

Clever, Funny

See it if great acting, something i never new about, extended to 2/10

Don't see it if you had a long hard time delivering a baby

Absorbing, Great acting, Intelligent, Intense, Heart-wrenching

See it if historical* subject of how black female slaves were used for multiple painful experimental surgeries - the beginning of modern gynecology

Don't see it if don't want subjects of women in pain or blacks being treated as property

Also * some liberties/fictional details added - but they are well done and ... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Thought-provoking, Great acting

See it if you enjoy excellent performances and production values, superb design and staging, theatre at its best! Very engaging & great playwriting.

Don't see it if graphic medical descriptions are problematic, the patron sitting next to me was super sensitive and started crying.

Absorbing, Great acting, Riveting, Resonant, Intense

See it if You want a bit of history sprinkled with fiction about a medical breakthrough and the role that enslaved black women had in it.

Don't see it if You are not able to see a play that depicts a period in time where enslaved black people did not have the right to say NO.

Also This play was very interesting and informative. The performers did a g... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Profound, Thought-provoking, Informative, Masterful

See it if you want to see a profound exposure of historical medical events not well known that involve enslaved black women in the 1840's.

Don't see it if on a night where you can't bear the pain of how badly slaves were treated

Also This was a powerful play. I happened to see it the night after I saw t... Read more Read less

Great acting, Great staging, Great writing, Thought-provoking, Intelligent

See it if you enjoy good drama based on history, presented in an intimate, well-designed space, with a good cast who make you feel the pain endured.

Don't see it if you do not like reliving times in which black people were treated as property and used in inhumane ways.

Profound, Must see, Great acting, Searing, Riveting

See it if open to quietly intense drama about shameless exploitation of enslaved women to pursue medical success; bitter humor; powerful performances

Don't see it if wishing to remain ignorant of this brutality enslaved women suffered—but exposure to this silenced history is too important an experience

Absorbing, Great acting, Great writing, Cliched

See it if You enjoy well done tales of shared human suffering that are endured to lesson human suffering. Stories of the pain of being worth less.

Don't see it if You mind some slavery fiction cliches and playing loosely with the history. The play not resolving various threads.

Also This is an elite original off-off production that should be seen befor... Read more Read less

Great acting, Great writing, Intelligent, Absorbing, Profound

See it if interest in Sims:”father of gynecology”:he experimented on slave women to invent tools/procedures.I’m in OBGYN-had to go!wonderful new play!

Don't see it if abused slaves,cruel surgeries, pain, heartache is trigger for you.Venue is poor:hot, hard to find, untrained staff, disrepair,but stage good

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Resonant

See it if you like drama that feels lived and powerful​

Don't see it if you don't like watching physical suffering and medical surgery depiction on stage

Stunning, Informative, Engaging, Compassionate, Sharp

See it if you're interested in medical history, or a parable on where we've come but how far we still need to go on race and gender relations.

Don't see it if you can't handle sensitive and explicit talk of medical conditions and surgeries, or if you prefer uplifting fiction to harsh reality.

Also While I mention the grim reality of the plot, I must also note how ski... Read more Read less

Unsettling, Great acting, Intense, Painful, Slow

See it if interested in learning of little known episode in 1840's of forced experimental surgical procedures on female slaves with postpartum pain.

Don't see it if you can't handle scenes of physical & emotional suffering.

Also Story is well told & beautifully acted. At times touching, at times ho... Read more Read less

Great staging, Great acting, Intelligent

See it if you are interested in learning about the true heroes behind scientific advancements; beautiful production

Don't see it if you're not interested in a history lesson

Profound, Intelligent, Great staging, Great acting, Intense

See it if Painful, excruciating, slow, powerful, rich, beautiful, extraordinary and sad, intensely sad. And worth seeing.

Don't see it if Enslavement, women's history, and the history of medicine are complex subjects worthy of representation.

Also I don't know how these gifted performers can sit in this piece night a... Read more Read less

Important, Great acting, Brutal, Intense, Thought-provoking

See it if to see fictionalized account of horrific period of US history. This story should be heard by all. Well acted, written, directed and staged.

Don't see it if you don't want to confront some of the ugliest legacies of slavery. If you can't bear to see painful subject matter.

Also The musical Hamilton asks "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"... Read more Read less

Resonant, Riveting, Intense

See it if you are up for a fascinating exploration of gynecological history. This will get you thinking, a lot.

Don't see it if you are not up for another expose of the evils associated with slavery.

Also Beautifully designed and acted. One caveat: Do not read the Playbill f... Read more Read less

Cast & Creatives (12)