Review by Sam Waite
When Henrietta Lacks passed away following a battle with cervical cancer, cancer cells from her body became the foundation of the HeLa line – the first immortalised human cell line. The HeLa cell line is still used in medical research and development to this day, but neither Henrietta or her family received compensation for the harvesting and use of these cells. In fact, it was not until 1975, over two decades after the fact, that the Lacks family became aware of their connection to this deeply important piece of medical history.
Mojisola Adebayo’s Family Tree gives voice and personality to Henrietta, reduced so widely to simply HeLa – alternate names were used to hide the line’s namesake, nearly erasing her contribution to modern medicine. Adebayo’s bold, insightful text finds Henrietta in a space between living and death, examining her life and legacy while trying to come to terms with her lack of consent and how standard the practise of utilising black bodies for research was at the time. This abstract space is also inhabited by a trio of women appearing as both modern-day nurses and former patients-cum-test subjects of a white doctor.
These three women – Keziah Joseph, Aimée Powell, and Mofetoluwa Akande – have strong chemistry and get ample opportunities to flex both their dramatic and comedic muscles. Each being given moments of genuine depth in exploring their lives and the ways that their contributions to medicine brought them hardship while others, often male, white, or both, received the bulk of the praise. Each of these women feels fully realised, and the relationships between these two sets of characters feel genuine and distinct – the nurses are clearly long-standing friends and the patients/subjects believably help each other through harrowing experiments.
As Henrietta Lacks herself, Aminita Francis proves to be a commanding storyteller, her energy and engaging presence culminating in a fully-realised human being. Where Henrietta the person has largely been ignored in favour of the HeLa line’s contributions to medicine. Francis imbues the role with so much personality and charisma that it’s easy to forget that she hasn't created the character herself. Heartbreaking when called for but often deeply funny, Francis has found complexity and a dazzling soul in a woman so often reduced to merely her cells.
The only weak link in the production is a character credited only as “Smoking Man” and portrayed silently by Alistair Hall. While the actor himself brings a solid stage presence to the part which helps to draw attention to his despite having no dialogue, I found the role itself confusing. Seeming increasingly to represent a concept, perhaps of whiteness, power, or both, this is only a minor issue I found with the play, and one which others may immediately recognise and understand.
The set provokes thought from the moment you set eyes on it – Simon Kenny’s design centres much of Henrietta’s role within a circle of stone on the forest floor, reminiscent of her continuation as a still-diving set of cells in a Petri dish. Around the dish, stone pillars represent trees, while a structure over the fish itself evokes both a larger, more fully developed tree, and a strand of DNA under examination. It’s with this bold, attention-grabbing set piece that Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting design comes to life, illuminating this metaphor for life and continuing growth for a pivotal scene towards the finale.
Matthew Xia, a strong director as well as a DJ and journalist, brings elements of each of these backgrounds to his work here. The journalist in him knows better than to overwhelm the harsh historical facts behind the text with overwrought emotions, while his work as director guides the performances through these difficult emotions in delicate, nuanced waves. His background as both a DJ and an emotionally-intuitive director blend in his work alongside movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell – moments of dance, both interpretive and literal, create a sense of connection between the characters and between Henrietta Lacks and all those who, like her, became unwitting parts of medical experiments.
Xia’s exemplary work is, of course, only able to reach such soaring heights thanks to the strength of Adebayo’s writing. Not afraid to explore difficult subject matter, but refusing to frame any of her characters as merely victims or anything less than human, she brings nuance and emotional delicacy to her exploration of both Henrietta Lacks and the countless people who share similar histories. Richly felt dialogue finds genuine levity alongside a willingness to delve into genuine historical issues and king-standing prejudice. While the aforementioned “Smoking Man” proves to be confusing, his presence rarely distracts from the strength of everything going on around him.
Strongly written, deeply felt, and crafted with a clear understanding of the historical context and still-relevant themes of Henrietta’s story, Family Tree received a powerful response from its press night audience and if there is any justice this adoration will continue. Though occasionally confusing, the emotional weight and willingness to touch of much-ignored subject matter is both admirably and immensely enjoyable. In a time where black voices are still often ignored in favour of their white counterparts, this combination of talents is, if sometimes difficult viewing, a joy to behold.
Family Tree plays at Brixton House until April 23rd before continuing to tour the UK.
For tickets and more information, visit https://brixtonhouse.co.uk/shows/family-tree/ for the Brixton dates and https://www.atctheatre.com/production/family-tree-uk-tour-2023/ for further tour dates.
Photos by Helen Murray