Family Tree review – study of the mother of modern medicine falls between poetry and play

Belgrade theatre, Coventry
Mojisola Adebayo’s play connects Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in decades of vital scientific research, with the Black Lives Matter movement

‘I am a farm,” says Henrietta Lacks in Mojisola Adebayo’s play about one of medical history’s most inconvenient truths. It is a twin statement of astonishment and outrage. Astonishment because the cells removed from Henrietta’s cancerous body in the early 1950s went on to be used in everything from chemotherapy to IVF, from a treatment for polio to the fight against Covid. Outrage because those cells were taken without her knowledge, let alone her approval – and certainly not to her financial benefit. She might have been a farm, but she was not the farmer.

The story was told brilliantly in 2013 by Adura Onashile in HeLa, a play that was equally disturbed by the exploitative treatment of this black patient by the white establishment. A decade later, Adebayo’s Family Tree is able to make connections to Black Lives Matter and the effect of the pandemic on black workers in the NHS. She also brings in the 19th-century gynaecological experiments on slave women by Dr James Marion Sims. A grim pattern emerges, even as Henrietta’s cells bring new life.

At Belgrade theatre, Coventry, until 18 March, then touring until 17 June.

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