By Mark N. Kramer

In HBO’s movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Carnegie Mellon University alumna Renée Elise Goldsberry plays the title character in the true story of a woman who enabled gene mapping, the cloning of human cells and the discovery of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk. But before this film — produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey — and the bestselling book that inspired it, few had ever heard of Henrietta Lacks.

When Lacks died in 1951 from cervical cancer, her tumor cells were, without her consent or knowledge, harvested and propagated. In fact, these HeLa cells (the name taken from her name) became the first human cells to reproduce well outside of the human body, and HeLa cells have since led to tens of thousands of research studies and breakthroughs. The film depicts Lacks’ family members coming to terms with news of Lacks’ unknowing, incomparable contributions to science.

“It’s a wonderful thing as an actor if you can do more than entertain, but enlighten and bring about awareness of stories that no one knew about into our collective consciousness. Lacks’ contribution to science saved countless numbers of people, and her cells are still being used and produced today.”
Renée Elise Goldsberry

An actress, singer and songwriter, Goldsberry has played other lesser-known, but no less historically important, women. In the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Goldsberry originated the character of Angelica Schuyler Church, sister-in-law to Alexander Hamilton, a role for which Goldsberry won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

Among her many other acting credits are starring roles in Broadway renditions of “The Color Purple,” “The Lion King” and “Rent.” On television, Goldsberry played roles in “The Good Wife” and the upcoming Netflix science fiction series “Altered Carbon.” She earned two Daytime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress while playing an attorney on the daytime soap opera “One Life to Live.”

Goldsberry earned her undergraduate degree from CMU’s College of Fine Arts in 1993, majoring in drama.

"I learned not only how to act and sing, but how important it is to be more than talented, how important it is to work really hard and to work well with other people,” Goldsberry recalled. “Being surrounded by such talented colleagues kicks you into gear and sets you off on the right foot.”

Don Wadsworth, one of Goldsberry’s instructors, said he immediately knew Goldsberry was an exceptional talent.

“Renée connects to the heartbeat of the work and brings passion and romance to everything she touches,” he explained. “She’s a strong, passionate, gifted actor who sings like an angel. Renée is exactly the sort of student we want to develop and support in this conservatory program.”

Goldsberry also credits her time at CMU with teaching her the importance of keeping a healthy balance between professional and personal lives. She is now investing time in her two young children and husband, while also working to write and produce stories of her own.

“I have a lot of stories to tell, and I want to put pressure on myself to create in more diverse ways,” she said. “There’s a responsibility to tell your own story.”

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Photo: Goldsberry portrays Henrietta Lacks in the HBO drama.

Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert / HBO