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15th April 2023

Review: Family Tree

Mojisola Adebayo’s Family Tree unburies the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells transformed the trajectory of medical research.
Review: Family Tree
Photo: Helen Murray @ Family Tree

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia, August 1920. Her great-great-grandmother a slave, and she a tobacco farmer. Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive variant of cervical cancer aged 30. At 31, Lacks was dead. Except, part of her wasn’t.

Months before she passed, a group of doctors at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, took samples of Lacks’ cancerous cells. Without her knowledge or her consent, her cells were sent to a lab to be researched and inspected – put under the harsh light of the microscope. What was found was astonishing: Lacks’ cells were immortal. They were found to have the capacity to survive and reproduce on their own, making it easier for scientists to carry out crucial and life-saving medical research.

Lacks’ cells have since been used in the process of cancer research, and in the study of diseases such as HIV, Measles, Mumps, Ebola, and Covid-19. HeLa cells, as they have since been named, have even travelled to space. But, importantly, Henrietta Lacks never gave consent for her cells to be used in this way. In fact, consent was not even sought from Lacks’ family after her death – nor were they notified, or remunerated for the use and discovery.

While conglomerates capitalised on this new-found medical wonder, Henrietta’s immediate family remained in poverty for most of their lives, unable to afford basic necessities, let alone healthcare insurance or medicines. Perhaps even those very same medicines Lacks’ cells had helped to create. It was not until the 1970s that Lacks’ family were even notified about the use of her cells.

Mojisola Adebayo’s play is a theatrical un-burial of the life and the medical legacy of Henrietta Lacks, as well as an exploration of the layers and complexities of racism within scientific research and medicine today. Intrinsically poetic and wonderfully celebratory, Adebayo has us, simultaneously, in tears, in laughter, and in rage.

A powerful part of the play was Adebayo’s plea for healthcare to belong to everyone, free of charge. Henrietta Lacks, played by Aminita Francis, speaks in verse, song, and rap, asking a series of hard-hitting questions about the healthcare industry and its continual commodification of Black bodies.

But while exploring the life of Henrietta Lacks, the play also brings us into the contemporary moment. Three NHS nurses appear onstage (acted phenomenally by Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph, and Aimée Powell), who discuss (over tea, and whilst oiling each other’s hair) their exhaustion and their anger. They discuss the mortality rates of Black women compared to those of White women in labour, as well as White fragility, Greta Thumberg, climate change, and Tony Morrison.

The play is about Black femininity in general, and how science and medicine have historically, and repeatedly, capitalised off the bodies of Black women. From African-American women slaves (the ‘mothers’ of modern gynaecology), whose bodies were used as surgical experiments (regardless of consent and bereft of any kind of pain relief), to NHS nurses working on the front-line during the pandemic (the play was written during lockdown), Adebayo draws connections between present and past exploitations.

Although much of the play is hard-hitting, even uncomfortable at times, there are some appreciated moments of relief – coming in the form of dance, of song (namely, Beyoncé), of poetry, and of comedy. We are left, I think, feeling like the play is a celebration, as much as it is a lament and a condemnation.

The idea for the play came about after writer Mojisola Adebayo was given The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book written from the perspective of a journalist and the Lacks’ family. Abebayo found the book to be incredible, but, in her own words, “wanted to hear and imagine more from the voice of Henrietta herself’.” After one “magical conversation” with to-be director Matthew Xia, the idea for Family Tree was born.

Simon Kenny’s set design features a stage which is aesthetically akin to a petri dish, with a large tree-like DNA replica to the left of the stage. The dark and physically sparse set worked to create a definitively eerie feeling. However, I couldn’t help but feel jarred by the brutalism of it. Perhaps this was just a personal gripe, but I didn’t enjoy the harshness and the futurism of the setting, nor the neon green lights and excessive use of metal, and felt like it didn’t add much to the overall message of the play.

Winner of the 2021 Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play by a Black British playwright, Family Tree has just begun its 13-week tour across the UK. The tour is coming to twelve venues (from Keswick to Plymouth, London, Liverpool and Bristol). The legacy of Henrietta Lacks cannot be under-emphasised, and Family Tree is on its quest not to forget it. Director Matthew Xia puts it best in that “we owe our lives to her” – no matter our ethnicity, our culture, or belief, Lacks’ legacy has (quite literally) touched us all.

Family Tree runs at Brixton House until April 23 and tours the UK until June 17. Sadly, there is no Manchester date, but it plays at Liverpool Everyman from May 4 to 6.

Erin Osman

Erin Osman

Co-Features Editor for The Mancunion // Twitter @ErinOsman03

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