(Brixton House, 12-23 April 2023)
Review By Karla Williams
The contribution to modern medicine of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951 and whose cancer cells continue to reproduce after her death for reasons scientists who use them in research still do not fully understand, has received some public attention over the last few years. A book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot, was turned into the 2017 film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. Despite her story being told by a Hollywood superstar, many people are still unaware that Henrietta’s living cells, given the name HeLa, form the basis of some of the most important breakthroughs of the last 70 years in medical research in areas including cancer, HIV, IVF, polio, and COVID-19.
Mojisola Adebayo’s play Family Tree, which explores Lack’s life, and beyond it the wider theme of medical sacrifices made by black women throughout history. The drama employs a poetic, direct-to-audience monologue delivered by Henrietta, whose cells were used without her consent or her family’s knowledge, as well as by black female NHS nurses, who lost their lives working on the front line during the COVID pandemic, and by female slaves owned by a mysterious Dr Sims, who performs experiments on their wombs without pain relief. The drama resolves with a celebration ritual, featuring Henrietta and the other women alongside Oshun, the Yoruba orisha, or deity, of femininity, fertility, beauty and love.
Adebayo’s cleverly written, nuanced script educates and entertains as it switches between its multiple story lines. Executed with touching emotion, and surprising wit and humour, I particularly enjoyed the section ‘Why People’, performed with zeal by Mofetoluwa Akande playing NHS nurse Ain. She explains that white people should be called why people, because of their baffling behaviour when it comes to race. Especially white women, who always revert to tears when faced with their racism.
The play doesn’t shy away from the brutal and barbaric suffering endured by black women in the name of modern medicine or the refusal to give them credit and to value their lives. Yet despite this harsh truth that not all lives are equal, Adebayo brings love and celebration to their lives. Nurse Lyn delivers an impassioned speech from Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987) about why we must love ourselves, despite the oppression. And Henrietta’s final resting place in the play is with the orishas, where she will be remembered and worshipped forever.
Award-winning director Matthew Xia brings Family Tree to life in a stripped-back production that focuses on movement and poetry. The cast give excellent performances, with Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell depicting multiple characters across time and Aminita Francis in the lead role of Henrietta. My stand-out performer was Mofetoluwa Akande, brilliant as outspoken Nurse Ain and as the utterly hilarious Oshun. The only slight question mark was over Alistair Hall as Smoking Man, a character who just walked around the stage smoking, and was then buried and turned into a vegetable garden. I still don’t understand what purpose he played in the larger story.
Family Tree is a powerful and enchanting depiction of black women’s contribution to medicine, while highlighting the specific legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Whether you know all about her HeLa cell line or haven’t a clue, this homage to black women is worth catching.
Family Tree will be on a national tour of the UK until 17th June:
Photo by Helen Murray