Arts Reviews

“Uncovering The Racist Lies Of An Untold Story”- Theatre Review: Family Tree @ Nottingham Playhouse

Kyra Patterson

Actors Touring Company arrived at Nottingham Playhouse on the 1st of June for its opening night of Family Tree, an inspiring and thought-provoking drama detailing the tragic history of a Black woman, whose importance continues to save lives in the medical industry. Impact’s Kyra Patterson reviews.

The play, written by Mojisola Adebayo, begins with the lead role, Henrietta Lacks played by Aminita Francis, walking up from the crowd onto the stage reciting a prose-like introduction to what story is to be shared. Her powerful voice and comedic timing did very well at informing the audience of who her character was, and what the energy of the play would be. When she switched to an American Baltimore accent, the audience knew that the real show had begun.

We were informed of the true legacy of Henrietta Lacks; how the cancer cells that doctors stole from her led simultaneously to her fatality, as well as the medical research which has led to treatments of cancer, HIV and COVID, to name a few. Francis did a stunning job of showcasing the confusion in why Black people were, and are still, the test rabbits of the medical industry. She displayed her impressive vocal notes as she sung the words of pain and sorrow from beyond the grave, as she witnessed her baby’s head being operated on, against her will, for medical research.

breathing was represented as a release from trauma

As the story is split between mid-1950’s Maryland and present-day England, three NHS nurses emphasised the frustrations of Black women towards the same system, from a worker’s perspective as opposed to a slave’s. Whilst performing a deeply comforting and uniquely Black tradition of oiling each other’s scalps, the women relayed their horrific experiences with the NHS, fuelled by the racist microaggressions and treatment they had received at their place of work.

Mofetoluwa Akande’s character, Ain, especially made some important insights surrounding what she called “Why People”, and their behaviours which we commonly see today such as white tears, white guilt, and white people’s denial that racism still occurs. She conveyed the tragic comedy of the Black woman’s experience, and the white woman’s role in it, through honest criticism and frustration, droll humour and dancing to Cardi B’s WAP.

The use of breath played a pivotal part in the play; whether it was the sighs of the nurses after each monologue, or the reactionary gasps, breathing was represented as a release from trauma, as well as the bracing for the traumatic events to follow.

Melodious, rhythmic repetition continued throughout the play, as if the whole script were written to be sung

The nurses also doubled as slaves in Henrietta’s native of Baltimore, Maryland. This highlighted the parallels between racism then and now. Keziah Joseph’s portrayal of Betsey drove home the tedious laborious work of slaves, as she repeated the many uses for the wood she cut down on stage. Melodious, rhythmic repetition continued throughout the play, as if the whole script were written to be sung.

The theme of nature contributed to the beautiful written imagery that the audience saw depicted on stage. Whether it was the voice of the tree, the lighting of the fire or, the smoke in the “Garden of Death”, the audience were implicitly asked to question whether racism is natural, and the ties between the healing nature of the body and the cold stigma of the hospital ward.

hopes of giving Henrietta exactly what she deserved: a joyous ending

I found it intriguing that the only white character, a smoking man played by Alistair Hall, never spoke, and yet affected the characters so much by his sole presence. He also doubled as a sick patient in modern day, and a corpse when the three women constantly switched accents and remained in their slave clothes, to show how synonymous both worlds are.

Musicality also played a less subtle role in the play’s ending. Another history that the audience were able to learn was of Oshun, the goddess of water in Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. Tying Henrietta Lacks to Yoruba roots made for an excellent touch of African culture, something that African Americans are said to lack due to slavery. Oshun was also played by Akande, who brought an ethereal humour to the stage in the hopes of giving Henrietta exactly what she deserved: a joyous ending.

Incorporating dance, poetry and history, Family Tree is successful at uncovering the racist lies of an unheard story, which effects every single person today. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy is able to shine through, and illuminate the dreadful life that she experienced.

Kyra Patterson

Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.

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