Family Tree, Brixton House

by Luisa De la Concha Montes

This is an innovative play that presents the true history of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were used to create the first immortalised human cell line. It opens with a rhythmic, spoken-word monologue delivered by Henrietta (Aminita Francis). We soon learn that her DNA, nicknamed by herself as “Did Not Ask”, was non-consensually taken from her body in 1951. It has since served as the key basis for medical research, including the development of HIV vaccines, investigation of cancer cells and more recently, the COVID vaccine.

We are then introduced to three supporting characters, Ain (Mofetoluwa Akande), Bibi (Keziah Joseph) and Lyn (Aimée Powell), who work in the NHS during the pandemic. This clever jump between past and present exposes the links between racism and medical research, opening our eyes to a story that, despite being widely untold, is more relevant than ever – as it is the basis upon which current power structures are built and maintained. The script uses bold comedy and contemporary references to engage with the audience, and it does so without shying away from controversy, which is quite refreshing. For instance, in one scene, Ain openly condemns white women for their victim attitude. In one sweeping movement, she takes two spray bottles and imitates their dramatic crying, triggering roaring laughter from the audience. This simple scene effectively demonstrates how this is not a play catering to white guilt or white fragility. Quite the opposite, it is a Black story for Black audiences; it thrives on specific cultural references, and on its celebration of Black joy.

One of the most interesting elements of the play is the stage design, which serves two purposes. Firstly, it transports us to a fictional threshold between Heaven and Hell, a place where misrepresented characters such as Henrietta and the nurses can finally tell their story. Secondly, it references a past with trees, soil and stones where nature was first and humanity second. This concept is also explored through the sound design, which subtly implements signing birds and sounds of nature when Henrietta talks.

This framing is intentional, as it brings the concept of environmental concern to the fore. The script swiftly connects concepts of bodily autonomy with extractivism, showing how Henrietta Lacks’ medical history is just one of the many examples where violence is normalised and even embraced.

For instance, halfway through the play, Ain, Bibi, and Lyn become Anarcha, Bestey and Lucy, three women that are being experimented on during the late 1800s by Dr. Sims, the “father” of gynaecology who often operated on enslaved Black women without anaesthesia. The cast’s superb acting – here including the adopting of new accents and body languages – allows for a smooth transition between characters. This supports the audience to geographically and chronologically travel with them, seeing the existing dualities between Black lives then and now, creating a complex picture on the history of othering. Ultimately, this format demonstrates the links between slavery, police brutality and the mistreatment of Black bodies, confronting how life after segregation still upholds white supremacy.

Toni Morrison is referenced throughout the play, creating an alternative worldview where horror is used to expose the threads of history where Black lives were treated as disposable. For instance, there is a recurring character, the Smoking Man (Alistair Hall), who sporadically comes on and off stage without saying a word. His presence, both eerie and imposing, serves as a stark reminder of the power threads moving behind the scenes, affecting the lives of the characters on stage. His appearance is always signified by a slow Western song, enveloping the room in a sense of danger.

Often, the so-called Black narratives end up catering to a white audience. Afraid of offending, they centre the receiving end, often adopting the white gaze as the space where the struggle is witnessed. Family Tree does the opposite; it shines a light on the Black experience, deeply exploring the struggles, desires and beauty of each character and honouring the lives lost. All in all, Family Tree shines a light on a story that has been screaming to be heard for too long.

Family Tree runs through 23 April.

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