Family Tree – Brixton House, London

Reviewer: Graham Williams

Writer: Mojisola Adebayo

Director: Matthew Xia

From the beautifully crafted opening poem to the final musical celebration of black women through time, this is a fiercely intelligent and moving piece of theatrical writing complemented by a superbly thought-through production. Mojisola Adebayo won the Alfred Fagon Award in 2021 for this masterful play that weaves the threads of history and DNA from colonial Maryland USA through to three nurses reflecting on COVID-hit British society.

At its heart is the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks whose cervical cancer cells, taken without consent in 1951, the year of her death, were the first discovery of immortalised cell lines fundamental to modern day medical science. The discovery made fortunes for medical companies but the cells’ origins were only brought to light by a researcher in the mid-1970s, shining a light on privacy, rights and consent. The ingenuity of this play is the layered threads of history through the experiences of black women, nature and nurture, seeds and fertility, DNA and cells, family and longevity, maternity and expressions of love. It also incorporates the historical rage of enslavement and the ongoing struggle against racism, and Black Lives Matter.

Aminita Francis gives a mesmerising performance as Lacks, her natural artistic gift is clear from the start with her beautiful recitation of the complex, radical modern-day opening poem. She narrates the story from beyond the grave, switching from poetry to storytelling, movement, dance and song. When not telling her story Lacks maternally watches the stories through the bones of a pelvis, binoculars looking out from a black woman’s womb as if ethereally viewing women’s suffering through a holographic headset.

The everyday harrowing experiences of black women through time are excellently performed by Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell. Each has their moment to shine during the recounting of various stories such as the modern-day anger of a black female NHS worker complicated by vaccine denial. The horrific stories of black female slaves being used in experimental, early gynaecological and other medical research for the benefit of white people are woven in with excerpts from the seminal 1987 novel Beloved by Toni Morrison.

The weaving flow of Adebayo’s writing is cleverly enhanced by Matthew Xia’s production through sound, music, movement, lighting and set design; each element is alive with meaning and reason. The set design with a DNA molecule tree, a metaphor for the tree of life and family through time, is ingenious in its simplicity and used to maximum effect. The music and song are joyous and are a varied cultural celebration of black women.

Ultimately, this is a stand out, powerful tale of black women, by black women and feels unashamedly for black women. The expression of black women’s’ love even extended to after the production with the motherly warmth of home cooked stew on offer. This relatively new theatre in the heart of Brixton feels the right place for this production to be staged but equally it demands to be seen by a white audience.

Runs until 23 April 2023 and then tours

The Reviews Hub Score

Powerful poetical theatre

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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