Our lives are indebted to many people. We know the names of the (mostly male) pioneers who made the big breakthroughs and advances in so many fields. Other names (mostly female) are buried in history. Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo at the Belgrade Theatre, with the Actors Touring Company in association with Brixton House, is a tribute to the part played by one such person in changing the lives of people around the world.
A delight to watch but overly ambitious
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) was born in Virginia, an African-American woman raised by her maternal grandfather after her large family was split up following her mother’s death. She worked on his tobacco farm where she met her husband and had children. Diagnosed with adenocarcinoma she was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital, Baltimore, where she eventually died. What she didn’t know was that tissue samples had been taken from her body to be used in research. In those days the idea of giving consent for such procedures was not established and she knew nothing about what was going on. Most cells die after a few days, but the ones from her cancerous sample were able to be repeatedly split and remain alive. Hence they became known as ‘immortal’ and were named HeLa cells. They are still in use today and have formed the basis of research into many areas, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, COVID, gene mapping, allergic reactions and the development of the polio vaccine.
There is plenty in this story to make for a fascinating play, as has been done before. According to Adebayo, it “paints a family tree of black women whose cells, blood and waters have birthed, raised and changed the world”, but what she goes on to do is extend that into a wider framework of three timelines and multiple issues that diminish its focus and adds to its complexity. We learn about Lacks, but also about authenticated gynaecological experiments carried out on black women in the era of slaveryalong with an attempt to update the subject with reference to the BLM movement, the contribution of nurses of various ethnicities to the NHS and their role during the recent pandemic and environmental concerns; all worthy topics in themselves, but in this context creating a sense of overload and catch-all.
These divergent themes are explored by a multi-rolling ensemble of Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell. They become characters in the various times and themes. There often amusing conversations are, however, largely descriptive and we can nod our heads with them in a mood of, “Oh yes, there was that and that happened and you're right about that”, but there is no cutting edge debate. Meanwhile, Alistair Hall makes a number entrances and exits as the silent and haunting Smoking Man; a wheezing cowboy figure whose appearances perhaps unite the tobacco plantation with cancer and deforestation and whose burial in land where things will grow suggest that even laid to rest in teh earth we can give life, as Lacks has done.
Her part is played by Aminita Francis, somewhat oddly dressed in a startling purple suit reminiscent of the Civil Rights era, though it adds to the colour that Set and Costume Designer Simon Kenny has brought to this production. However, her language is anything but that of an activist even if some of her imagery conjures up conflicting issues. She speaks in strings of words making a poetic association of ideas in a mystical, shamanistic manner as though possessed by the conflicts of the centuries. Some of the juxtapositions are clever; others amusing, but they come so thick and fast as to leave little time for reflection.
Her presence is impactful, both visually and linguistically, as she weaves her way with the others around the equally powerful, if ambiguous, set that provides food for the imagination. Is this a burn-out Garden of Eden that has become a symbol that Lacks refers to as the Garden of Black Death or just somewhere that Smoking Man wanders for eternity reflecting upon his past decisions? Then there is the multibranched structure, clearly symbolic of a family tree but suggesting the Tree of Life with cells that light up adding to the impressive work of Lighting Designer Simisola Majekodunmi. Other enhancing effects come from Sound Designer Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and Movement Director Diane Alison Mitchell.
These elements are all brought together under the direction of Matthew Xia who has created a production that is a delight to watch but overly ambitious in terms of its script with a message that consequently lingers in the trees rather than our hearts and minds.