Scientific pursuits: Family Tree @BrxHouseTheatre
Family Tree, by Mojisola Adebayo, uses the power of words to weave a story about race, inequality, health and the state of the world from the perspective of black women. It’s provocative, disturbing and methodical in depicting inequality throughout time. But it’s also a celebration of life and thriving in the face of relentless adversity. It’s currently playing at Brixton House.
The guide to the story is Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a black woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951. The hospital that treated her was the only hospital that would accept black patients in the area; it took a biopsy and collected her cells without her knowledge or consent. Scientists found that hers could be kept alive, unlike other cells that only survived for a few days. Today her cells are the oldest and most commonly used human cell line used to test the first polio vaccine, cancer treatments and covid-19 vaccines.
The guide, Lacks (Aminita Francis), introduces us to a world where segregation and inequality meant that the only hospital available to her would harvest her cells without her knowledge and keep the discoveries from her family for many years. The piece weaves tale after tale of black women erased from history. Henrietta Lacks, enslaved women in the 19th century forced to undergo cruel experiments or black NHS workers required to work without the necessary PPE during the pandemic. The times may have changed, and history may not repeat itself, but the inhumanity still rhymes in many uncomfortable ways.
Part poetry and part dialogue between the performers, the piece is at its strongest, conveying the story of injustice and inequality. It can be hard to follow as it moves between the poetry and dialogue, but the argument remains the same.
The cast conveys the necessary anger and humanity of the piece with focused performances as they play a variety of characters. And the staging with simple circles could be the Garden of Eden or a Petri dish to underscore the themes.
The piece won the 2021 Alfred Fagon Award, the leading Black British Playwriting prize for the best new play. It is a marvel for its clarity and incisiveness in telling the story of Henrietta Lacks against the backdrop of institutionalised racism.
Directed by Matthew Xia, Family Tree is at Brixton House until 23 April. It then moves to tour through to 17 June. Check the Actors Touring Company website for details.
Photos by Helen Murray