Culture Writer Fisola Kelly-Akinnuoye reviews Family Tree, finding that it gave light to the important need to correct whitewashing of Henrietta Lack’s story, but the production lacked a well-rounded plot
The story of Henrietta Lacks is unfortunately not well known despite her incredible contributions to modern medicine. In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The doctors discovered that her cells continued to grow outside of her body. Her immortalised human cells have been used to develop medicine and vaccines from HIV to Covid-19. The impact of the HeLa cells is ubiquitous but the mistold story of their origin is a reminder of the invisibilisation of black people’s contribution to science against their will.
Playwright Mojisola Adebayo’s dramatisation of the story was ambitious. She weaved the contemporary with the historical to tell a transgenerational story of the injustices towards black women in the medical practice. It included the story of slave women in America who were operated on by Dr. Sims known as the father of gynaecology, someone who also held racist views that black people did not feel pain. There was also a trio of black nurses who expressed the injustice of the NHS and racism of white women and the central character Henrietta Lacks played by Aminita Francis.
The play opened with a monologue from Henrietta that directly addressed the audience. This established a more didactic tone and gave space for the moments of abstract, poetic dialogue. Francis’ presence on stage was powerful and commanding. She was an engaging narrator but the contents of the monologues were sometimes too abstract with little plot. The story was very character and dialogue driven which was used to expound on the history of the characters and themes of injustice, racism, medical racism and oppression. The intergenerational story was a great way to unite the experiences of the black women.
However, some of the conversations, particularly about race spoken by the nurses, did not translate to me as a viewer. The only dialogue between the nurses was them ranting about their experience of racism. I would have appreciated a scene that acted out their experience instead of them talking about it. I could appreciate that these conversations could be beneficial to a different theatre goer who surprisingly may not be familiar with racism. The characters had great lines of dialogue which delivered critiques on society through humour, sarcasm and wit. The word play of white people to ‘why people’ did not work for me.
There wasn’t much plot and this is where the play became difficult to follow for me. For an hour and a half play with no interval I was banking on the fact I would be gripped the entire way through but the large chunks of monologue and exposition didn’t keep me as engaged as I hoped. I think the play could have been longer to create space for more development of the characters. A few more scenes could have elucidated the significance of some of the play’s aspects like the cowboy who walked across stage a few times smoking a cigarette or the link to Yoruba mythology.
The final scenes with the Orisha Osun inducting Henrietta Lacks into the pantheon under Orisha of Cells was a powerful homage to ‘blackness being life.’ A way to venerate a figure who is so impactful in medicine and who has been robbed off her credit. The actress’s multi roling was plausible particularly Mofetoluwa Akande’s performance of Ain, Anaracha and Osun. The final scene was where movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell’s work shone. The African inspired movement sequence coupled with the lighting created dimension to the minimal set design replicating the feeling of a fever dream and building the connection with the spiritual realm.
The play was very evocative and did important work to correct the whitewashing and erasure of Henrietta Lacks’ story. This is an important play that commentates Lacks and black people across the diaspora creatively which I recommend everyone watches.
Enjoyed this? Read more Redbrick Culture here!
Comedy Review: Shazia Mirza – Coconut