Family Tree

Apr 6 2023 | By More

★★★★☆    Illuminating

Traverse: Wed 5 – Fri 7 April 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

Family Tree, by Mojisola Adebayo, at the Traverse for three nights only, is a word-spitting, poetic and coruscating piece of theatre that brings light to a shameful corner of the scientific world.

It is no mean feat this. Adebayo’s script deals with the complex scientific issues around Henrietta Lacks, the unwitting cornerstone of modern therapeutic medicine, by framing these issues in a whole history of racist scientific method. Yet this Actors Touring Company production is as illuminating as it is provocative, and as entertaining as it is profound.

Aminita Francis as Henreitta Lacks. Pic: Helen Murray.

The history of Henrietta Lacks is little known, although not unfamiliar to Edinburgh theatre goers who might remember Adura Onashile’s own illuminating one woman show, HeLa, from 2013.

IN 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix, was treated but sadly died. When the tumour removed from her body was examined, it was found that its cells continued to live and multiply outside the human body.

Being black and poor, none of the doctors thought it necessary to inform her or her relatives of the importance of the discovery. Or, indeed, the financial reward for discovering a novel strain of living human cells “HeLa” which could be used for experiments outside a live patient.

muscular delivery

In Family Tree, Aminita Francis is simply stunning as Henrietta Lacks. There is real focus, from her muscular delivery of a slick, rap-come-performance poetry style opening monologue to her creation of Henrietta, still full of vitality and good humour beyond the grave, while sometimes peeking in on other forgotten vital cogs in medical history.

Henrietta is stuck in some strange kind of not-quite afterlife. After all, where does a soul go if there are parts of their body which live on, 70 years after their death?

Keziah Joseph, Aminita Francis, Aimee Powell and Mofetoluwa Akande. Pic Helen Murray

Simon Kenny’s set is a limbo of sorts, with what could be the outline of a giant petri dish, a double helix and decaying stumps that might be felled trees or split gravestones. Simisola Majekodunmi’s often unexpected lighting and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers ever illuminating sound all add to the feel.

Every so often a lone cowboy appears – could that really be the Marlboro Man? – sucks on a cigarette and silently, disconsolately observes all; a grim reaper, grimly dying in his own time. Simon Kenny’s slow moving, enigmatic presence is the epitome of cool gone wrong.

Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimee Powell give equally emphatic and particular performances. First as a trio of NHS nurses: Ain, Bibi and Lyn, who appear to be on their tea break. They are keenly thought-out characters, vivid in their chats on Covid, racism, the lack of PPI and climate change as they tend to each other’s hair.

intelligence and style

The work of movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell is constantly present here. Nowhere more so, though, than when Akande, Joseph and Powell return as Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy – the only three enslaved women, from around 30 who he experimented on, named by the so-called father of gynaecology, James Marion Sims.

Mathew Xia directs with intelligence and style, at a pace that is at once urgent but also feels relaxed. In a play which highlights the repression of black people by white, he finds moments of power for the performers, and of humour, where the anger and bitterness could submerge the piece itself.

Keziah Joseph, Mofetoluwa Akande and Aimee Powell, with Alistair Hall in the background. Pic: Helen Murray

Tellingly, he has taken a script originally written to be performed in a graveyard and grounded it firmly on the stage. Even if Adebayo does not appear convinced of how she want’s it to end, when the finale does come, Xia ensures that it is a moment of joy and celebration, even if there can be no proper resolution.

Which is not to say that anger or bitterness are not present. They are. And rightly so. But in a time of slogans, internet memes and social media pile-ons, the issues discussed here also need set out with clarity if we are to ever have careful and considered thought. If we are to move forward, it surely has to be with an understanding of each other.

More to the point, perhaps, this is an oportunity to celebrate the forgotten people who gave their lives to medical science without consent or even knowledge, even as we step back from lionising those who made their names upon the backs of the likes of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the everlasting Henrietta Lacks.

Running time: One hour and 35 minutes (no interval).
Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED.
Wed 5 – Fri 7 April 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm (Traverse 1)
Tickets and details: Book here.

Aminita Francis, Keziah Joseph, Mofetoluwa Akande and Aimee Powell. Pic: Helen Murray.


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