Family Tree, written by Mojisola Adebayo, is a quintessential and powerful performance, somewhere between a wonderfully classical poem and a contemporary play that celebrates Black women throughout history. It lifts the veil of forgotten heroines who have contributed to modern medicine achievements in more than one way and teaches an uncomfortable but important lesson about inequality, ignorance, and racism that still affects our everyday life.

Credit: Helen Murray

At its core, Family Tree tells three independent stories that intertwine and blend together, with the story of Henrietta Lacks forming the arch that holds it all together – much like her cells provide the arch that still enables modern medicine to have significant breakthroughs. She is one of the most important and yet least talked about people in medical history. Her cervical cancer cells have been taken without her knowing or consent and cultivated in a petri dish. When they kept growing – much to the surprise of the researchers – the renamed HeLa cells have been subject to countless experiments and studies that now form the basis for a majority of treatments from IVF to HIV and the common cold to COVID-19.

Adebayo tells her story from Lack’s point of view, who finds herself in a spiritual garden, looking on while her cells are used throughout time. She watches three NHS nurses who discuss their hardships, the lack of representation in powerful positions, the unwillingness of why-people (white people, but WHY are they the way they are?!) to discuss or even acknowledge racism and the rage they feel considering everything that is going on – or not going on – at the moment. Henrietta also watches three enslaved women who, like so many during their time, became the victims of brutal gynaecologist experiments. Full of sadness, she states, “They experiment to find cures for their babies, not mine.” It becomes increasingly hard to watch and not to cry for all the inequality. All the three storylines are overshadowed by a gloomy, silent cowboy who represents countless things, from oppression to cancer to the dying climate.

Credit: Helen Murray

I first came across the story of Henrietta Lacks a couple of months ago on a podcast about forgotten females of history. Aminita Francis does her more than justice. A powerhouse performer, barefoot and in a sensible 50’s suit, she recites poetry and bursts into dance and song as if nothing comes more natural. The three women, played by Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph, and Aimée Powell each have their own unique way of bringing their character to live in the marvellous garden (that also resembles a petri dish with its round layout) designed by Simon Kenny, while the stoically lurking Alistair Hall is an intriguing new layer to the performance.

Credit: Helen Murray

Overall, Family Tree is remarkably well-written, and it was a delight to listen to the poetic parts of it, especially the opening lines. The play raises a multitude of important questions around ethics in the light of human well-being and profit from the exploitation of black women’s bodies. It also aligns perfectly with the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges COVID-19 brought upon society, especially the non-white community. It is a highly political play in a spiritual environment. Yet, when I look at it holistically and despite the great directing of Matthew Xia, it failed to connect the dots. Although each story added to the overarching theme, I missed the Family Tree aspect.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Family Tree is on at Brixton House until the 23rd of April. Find tickets and more info here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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