Family Tree – Traverse Theatre

Written by Mojisola Adebayo

Directed by Matthew Xia

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the name Henrietta Lacks isn’t familiar to your tongue, research her. She’s more than deserving of your time.

The concept of a human body as a ‘farm’ may seem uncomfortable to some, repulsive even, but it’s precisely (and accurately) how Henrietta Lacks refers to herself in Mojisola Adebayo’s play about one of the medical advancements’ most painfully inconvenient truths. Lacks is a name which doesn’t sit in the minds of as many as it should, but perhaps the HeLa cells do: her extracted cancerous cells exist in everday forms from IVF to polio treatments and even to the recent battle with Covid-19. But as a black woman, a financially-poor black woman, the doctors saw no reason to inform her of the keepsake of these cells, nor the notoriety or financial benefit which should have come with them.

A crisp and clean purple suit and stylish hairdo frame a wonderfully polite and caring Henrietta – despite the setting and her bare feet, this could be any other day. Lacks is no activist but is unquestionably a mother, a woman, and a serene and collected human – something which sits grating, but authentically against her inner fury at the revelations of her treatment and the lack of agency, even in memory. With a firm command of writer Mojisola Adebayo’s language, flittering between poetic justice and a verbatim collage of injustice and abuse, Aminita Francis turns in a hypnotically beautiful performance – one measured in decorum, but sharp in tongue.

Limbo or paradise, or even worse, the principal setting throughout Family Tree exists as a realm in between, betwixt differing time frames of Henrietta’s story, her generational past, and the lives of future black women. History combines with a skirting edge of the dystopian world of science fiction, the trees replaced with metal spirals – half double-helix, half lantern. Simon Kenny’s blending of the surreal, enhanced with Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting, infuses the lifeblood of the ecosystem into the story without it strictly being a climate-crisis narrative. It’s an acquired choice while serving to demonstrate Lacks’ hands in the ever-advancing world of biology and scientific progress, does sit jarringly against the historical integrity of the production – momentarily causing the audience to become distracted from the revelations many may have just received.

Intertwined with Lacks’s story is that of the women who came before her, who suffered a precursor of abuse to their bodies, their minds and souls, and the story of future generations – three NHS nurses weary, near-broken, but strong jointly at the frontline of Covid-19. Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell as Ain, Bibi and Lyn initially appear to have managed a rare tea break amidst the Pandemic’s grasp. There’s a touching ritualistic flow to their friendship: chats of racism, PPI, music, and climate change all flow as they care for each other’s hair. A searing fire rages beneath Akande’s performance, imposing and forthright is balanced out by the more serene nature Powell evocates and emanates, which becomes a more harrowing presence as the trio of performers channel a sisterhood throughout history to slaves in the plantation fields, their bodies subject to the experimentations of a sadistic doctor’s fascination with controlling female autonomy and anatomy.

Fluid and evolving, Diane Alison-Mitchell’s movement direction ripples throughout as the performers dance upon the Petrie-dish circles spanning the stage, steadily becoming more of an integral element of storytelling later into the show – particularly as Powell, Akande and Joseph transition into Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey – three enslaved women, experimented on by James Marion Sims – the repulsively named ‘father of gynaecology’. Conceptually, Matthew Xia’s production has an ever-present figure of ‘whiteness’, or ‘whyness’ as Ain refers to it. Alistair Hall’s silent presence as a white smoking cowboy, a Marlboro man, is an unnerving addition – one serving as a persistent reminder of its longevity and survival of white supremacy and the tobacco industry’s involvement in the slave trade: nearly effective, but over-used and lacking a degree more imposing presence.

Unsurprisingly this reflection of history, one either unknown or ignored too many in the audience, is uneasy and gory in authenticity and details. But there is no shock value here. Adebayo’s language is confrontational, but still gorgeously rhythmic in components. It heightens the production’s stymie between poetry and play, a spoken word structure often taking over the storytelling. There are elements of over-explanation of the semiotics – a necessity given the cultural unfamiliarity, but conceptual ideas like the ‘death’ of white/whyness carry clear weight, not requiring a full explanation and stretching the production’s length. Understandably, the attempt to bridge the communication gap with a (predominately) white audience is met with a more conventual form of script and sits as a touch too every day alongside the more lyrical moments of drama or pathos.

The ethics of the scientific world remain in a blind spot, the results often separated as ‘excusable’ from the human costs. But Actors Touring Company’s (with Belgrade Theatre and Brixton House) Family Tree roots itself not in pain and suffering but beautifully and vindication amidst a memorial of womanhood: Family Tree seeks to end on a note of life. The ending in terms of our future is not written, but the assurances of dance, music, water and life have a firm and welcome place in the finale: a reassuring hand to guide all of those out of the dark, and into a sense of enlightenment of knowledge and remembrance.

A Reassuring Hand of Enlightenment

Family Tree runs at the Traverse Theatre until April 8th. Thursday – Saturday at 19.30pm.
Running time – One hour and thirty-five minutes without interval.
Tickets are available for £17.00 (Con. available) and may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Helen Murray


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