Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Henrietta Lacks is not a household name – but she should be. The cervical cancer that killed her also produced one of the most important cell lines in medical research, HeLa. Harvested from her tumour without consent, Lacks’ immortal cells (which continue to divide when most would die) have been crucial in the development of the polio vaccine, AIDS and cancer treatments, IVF and more. She died in 1951, but her cells live on, even proving invaluable in the fight against COVID.
So why haven’t we heard of her? The answer is sadly obvious: because she was a Black woman.
Mojisola Adebayo’s play sets out to right this wrong, to give Lacks the recognition she deserves. It also raises some very important questions about consent and compensation. This isn’t just an historic issue. Sure, the USA now has the ‘Common Rule’ clarifying the principles of ethical research, but certain biotech companies have made huge profits from patenting HeLa cell products – and none of the money has ever found its way to her descendants.
Directed by Matthew Xia, Family Tree is a challenging and confrontational piece of theatre, Adebayo’s writing poetic and arresting. Lacks (Aminita Francis) rises from her grave to undo her erasure, to demand we hear her version of the tale. She’s not alone in the graveyard: three slave women also rest there, finally at peace after enduring years of intrusive experimentation at the hands of the so-called father of modern gynaecology, Dr J Marion Sims. There are three Black NHS nurses too, felled by the pandemic in 2020. Ain (Mofetoluwa Akande) is full of righteous anger, mostly against the ‘Why People’ who claim to be allies until it’s inconvenient. Lyn (Aimée Powell) and Bibi (Keziah Joseph) are quieter and more philosophical, the latter using the leisure time that death affords her to finally read Toni Morrison. Although Lacks’ is certainly the most compelling narrative – she is, quite literally, centre stage – the other women’s stories are important too, contextualising Lacks’ experiences, and showing how she is just one link in a shocking, still ongoing chain. The actors are all electric, their performances poised and bold, intense and heartfelt.
However, despite the painful subject matter, this is not a piece of trauma porn. Although the story is about the horrendous ways Black women have been abused, Adebayo also shows the women’s strength and joy, turning them into dancing goddesses, recognising them for the queens they are.