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Family Tree at Brixton House

I used to know this part of Brixton well; today, I hardly recognised it. Brixton Market is now a foodie heaven and, just over the road, is this shiny new theatre sitting proudly among some heritage buildings that have been completely refurbished and look fantastic. So far so good!

Family Tree - Aminita Francis as Henreitta Lacks. Photo by Helen Murray.
Family Tree – Aminita Francis as Henreitta Lacks. Photo by Helen Murray.

I am here to see Family Tree, a play written by Mojisola Adebayo about the incredible legacy of Henrietta Lacks, someone who most people will not have heard of. Henrietta was a black woman, who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s in Baltimore, U.S.A. During her hospital treatment, some of the cancerous cells were removed as part of a cell biopsy. In those unenlightened times, patients were not asked their permission before cell biopsies were taken. Most human cells only live for a few days outside of the body. However, Henrietta’s cells were not like that: not only did they live on without her, but they have also outlived her by many decades. Her cells are now used across the world for medical research and are sold by the vial for hundreds of dollars. In contrast, her family couldn’t afford medical insurance and were never compensated for the use of her cells.

Henrietta Lacks is played quite brilliantly by Aminita Francis, she speaks Adebayo’s beautifully written lines with the necessary flow and rhythm, part poetry, part blank verse, part rap. She has a serene dignity about her, even when you can sense her anger at how she was used. “I am a farm,” she says, but she does not profit from the output of that farm. Aminita is ably supported by Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph, and Aimée Powell, who play slaves on a cotton plantation and nurses in modern-day NHS. They bring Henrietta’s story right up to date; her cells have been used in research and in the development of chemotherapy, IVF, the cure for polio and treatment and prevention of Covid 19. Against this background of the incredible legacy that one black woman has given to medical research, we are also told of the history of black peoples’ experience in medical history: of the unethical gynaecological experimentation on slave women; the revelation that black patients were not given anaesthetic during surgery, even though it was available, because they were believed to be stronger and feel less pain. As modern-day NHS nurses, they discuss the fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth, make connections to the Black Lives Matter movement and discuss how the reluctance of black and ethnic minorities to have Covid 19 vaccinations can be related to the way that they feel that the white establishment has treated them. The play also touches on the way that the resources of the Earth have been exploited and uses the character of the Yoruba goddess of fertility to provide a warning of the consequences if we do not protect them.

I really enjoyed this play, although I will admit to being made to feel (as a white woman) rather uncomfortable at times. I think that it would benefit from more emphasis being placed on Henrietta’s story and her incredible legacy and some counterpoint to the understandable outrage voiced by the modern-day characters. However, I’m sure this play will go on to be performed regularly and it deserves to be seen by larger audiences.

4 stars

Review by Sally Knipe

FAMILY TREE
BY MOJISOLA ADEBAYO DIRECTED BY MATTHEW XIA

FAMILY TREE is a powerful and poetic new drama exploring race, health and the environment. Inspired by the story of one of the most influential women of modern times, Henrietta Lacks.

Alfred Fagon Award winner (Best New Play 2021) by Mojisola Adebayo.

13-week, 12-venue National Tour. World Premiere at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

Directed by Matthew Xia (Rice, One Night in Miami…, Blue/Orange, Shebeen, The Wiz, Hey Duggee), the award-winning Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company.

The production is one of the most substantial and significant tours in ATC’s 42 year history.

FAMILY TREE is a powerful and poetic drama exploring race, inequality, health, the environment and the incredible legacy of one of the most influential Black women of modern times, Henrietta Lacks, whose influence on modern-day medicine still reverberates today.

Originally commissioned by ATC, the UK’s leading theatre producer of international plays, and the Young Vic Theatre in 2020, as an outdoor work-in-progress piece which was showcased at the 2021 Greenwich + Docklands International Festival.

CAST
Aminita Francis Henrietta Lacks
Mofetoluwa Akande Ain, Anarcha, Oshun (multi-rolling parts)
Keziah Joseph Bibi and Betsy (multi-rolling parts)
Aimée Powell Lyn and Lucy (multi-rolling parts)
Alistair Hall Smoking Man

CREATIVE TEAM:
Playwright: Mojisola Adebayo
Director: Matthew Xia
Set and Costume Designer: Simon Kenny
Costume Supervisor Maybelle Laye
Lighting Designer: Simisola Majekodunmi
Sound Designer: Francesca Amewudah-Rivers
Movement Director: Diane Alison Mitchell
Drama Therapist: Wabriya King
Associate Producer: Melina Barnett
Associate Director: Amelia Thornber

LISTINGS:
BRIXTON HOUSE
DATES: 12 – 23 April 2023
Address: 385 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London, SW9 8GL
https://brixtonhouse.co.uk/

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