Family Tree is the kind of play for which it feels reductive to give a star rating. It is ambitious, complex, thought-provoking, superbly acted and just a little bit unsatisfying as a single work.
It tells the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks, the black American woman who has been described as the mother of modern medicine. Cells removed from her body during treatment for what would prove to be terminal cancer in 1951 – without her knowledge or consent – have been used in everything from chemotherapy and IVF to the fight against HIV and, latterly, Covid. This is a jaw-dropping story of its own, albeit one that has been told on stage before in the 2013 production, HeLa.
In Family Tree, playwright Mojisola Adebayo ambitiously interweaves Lack’s story with the wider trauma of non-consensual gynaecological experimentation on 19th century black slaves, the disregard for black NHS workers during the pandemic, and the destruction of natural habitats, among other things. Sections of the resulting 95-minute work, directed by Mathew Xia, are compelling. Aminita Francis is gripping as Lacks, delivering lyrical monologues that combine anger, grief, defiance and humour while clad in the demure attire of a 1950s housewife. A scene in which two slaves (Mofetoluwa Akande and Keziah Joseph) prepare a third (Aimée Powell) for her impending first experience on the operating table of Dr Sims, for many years afterwards lauded by medical history as the ‘father of gynaecology’, is tragic and fury-inducing.
And yet in covering so much ground, Family Tree feels like it skims the surface. There is not room here to dig further into the life and legacy of Lacks, or to flesh out the experiences of a trio of NHS nurses lamenting their treatment during the pandemic. Given the cry that comes from all of them (that we don’t listen, that their stories are not heard), this feels somewhat unsatisfying.
This is brave theatre, created and delivered with passion, and one of the more original works I have seen in a long time: five stars. It left me thinking and, on some level, aware of important things about which I was previously not: five stars. As a whole, however, it fell somewhere between a single woman’s story and a sweeping wider tale, in the gap between poetry and narrative: three stars. And yet. And yet.
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For touring information about Family Tree, click here.