By: Holly Wigmore, TRP Reviewer
I will admit, before entering The Drum theatre to see Family Tree; I had no idea who Henrietta Lacks was, nor the legacy that she’s passed on through years of medicinal science. Left uncredited in our history books, her cells form the basis of the most important medical research and breakthroughs happening today, from cancer to HIV to COVID. This performance is her time, her moment, to tell a truth that’s so important to society and will no longer be silenced.
Written by Mojisola Adebayo and directed by Matthew Xia, this beautifully constructed play tells a narrative through poetic dramatisation, that focuses on key moral themes of race, health, the environment and the legacy of one of the most important Black women of modern times. At its core, this is a production that intertwines three independent stories, with Lacks holding them all together with her cells being at the centre of it all. Her cells, stripped from her body after suffering from cervical cancer herself, were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. She was never aware of the history she left behind.
From her watchful eye, Lacks can see the impact she’s had on the NHS, with the wider ensemble (Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell) taking on dual roles; embracing the healthcare occupation whilst discussing their lack of representation, hardships and dissatisfaction of their services by those in powerful positions. This trio also plays a collection of enslaved women; who represent so many in their time, as victims of gynaecology experiments.
As a supporting ensemble, each of these women are fantastic. It’s hard to fight back the tears as you wish you could do more to fight for their equality whilst sitting in the auditorium, completely captivated by the narrative that’s unfolding right in front of you.
Unveiling her truth whilst teaching us about inequality, ignorance, racism and the importance of Black heritage; whilst telling a statement of anguish and honesty, Aminita Francis is an absolute joy to watch as she fronts the cast as Henrietta Lacks. Despite being dead, existing in a spiritual garden able to see her impact through the stories of others, life still pulses through her in a way that makes her feel more alive than ever, captivating from beginning to end. Complete with a perfected 50s hairdo and immaculate purple suit, she is a mother of five; seemingly composed and civil, but speaks in a tongue of poetic sadness, with words of injustice, suffering and pain.
Forever lurking in the background, her story is shadowed by an ominous lurking cowboy who resides in silence. Looking like your traditional Marlboro man, he is a symbol of white independence and despite his participation in the narrative being left up to interpretation, Alistair Hall makes a fantastic antagonist who represents countless conversational topics, from oppression, the dying climate we’re living in and cancer itself which Lacks’ cells are helping fight.
Set design by Simon Kenny adds an additional layer to the narrative storytelling of the play, being set in a Stonehenge-esque purgatory where Henrietta looks out on the impact she’s had on society. The eponymous tree takes on a life of its own and is arguably the most distinctive piece as a metallic piece of DNA, but it’s the use of a circular set that caught my attention; resembling a petri dish that has key significance to the legacy of her cells that multiplied within one. This, paired with lighting design from Simisola Majekodunmi was honestly a sight to behold.
Overall, Family Tree is truly a remarkably well-written, beautiful poetic drama that inspires thoughts of a monumental history that’s been uncelebrated by society. It’s honest, open and fiercely unapologetic. With events like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years; this is a narrative that everyone can resonate with…and it’s inspiring to imagine what life would be like without Henrietta’s cells being used for medical developments that have had a profound effect on our society today.
Developed by Actors Touring Company, a touring theatre company, who connect global artistic voices to local communities; Family Tree is running at Theatre Royal Plymouth until 20th May and will be playing at select venues across the UK, including Sheffield Theatres and The North Wall Oxford until 17th June 2023.