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Conversations with creators and organizers of the arts scene in West Michigan, hosted by Cara Lieurance

She left a world-changing legacy that saved millions of lives. Henrietta Lacks was also a loved family member, a new exhibit and play shows

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Charcoal drawing by Jamari Taylor
Portrait of Henrietta Lacks
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courtesy photo
Jermaine Jackson is a librarian at the Alma Powell branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library

Jermaine Jackson, the grand-nephew of Henrietta Lacks, grew up hearing stories about the great-aunt he never met. Now he wants others to know what a treasured family member she was, in addition to her miraculous contribution to science in the form of "eternal cells."

At the time of her death from cancer at age 31, Lacks and her family were unaware that samples of her cells had been taken, let alone used in experiments. Johns Hopkins University went so far as to attribute them to a made-up white patient to placate racist attitudes. But her "HeLa" cells, which continue to replicate and live, opened the way for a polio vaccine in the 1950s — and they have played a role in many treatments since then, including the COVID-19 vaccine. Her story was popularized in a 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which became a movie in 2017. But Jermaine Jackson knew there was a side to her that had yet to be revealed.

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Buddy Hannah, playwright of “A HeLa Story: Mother of Modern Medicine”

The exhibit “A HeLa Story: Mother of Modern Medicine” goes on display Sept 1 at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and continues until Feb 27. It is also a new play that describes how Jackson filled in the personal and intimate parts of Henrietta Lacks' life by researching his own family history, saving mementos and documents, and curating a traveling exhibit, some items of which the local museum is using. With encouragement from Kalamazoo Valley Community College Marketing Projects Manager Earlene McMichael, Jermaine Jackson reached out to playwright Buddy Hannah to start work on a vision the men had been discussing to dramatize Jackson's journey to learn about his great-aunt. The play will be performed at 7 pm on Friday, Sept 30 and at 2 pm and 7 pm on Saturday, Oct 1 in the Mary Jane Stryker Theater of the museum.

Jackson, Hannah and McMichael joined Cara Lieurance for a conversation about the new play and the exhibit, organized by Kalamazoo Valley Community College and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, in collaboration with Jackson and supported in part by the KVCC Foundation.

Cara Lieurance covers local music with live morning interviews, and produces WMUK's Let's Hear It weekday mornings at 10 am Mon-Fri, showcasing local interviews and performances. She also produces The Pure Drop, an hour of Celtic music, with musician Dave Marlatt.