Family Tree at Brixton House

Aminita Francis as Henrietta Lacks. Photo by Helen Murray

Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo now showing at Brixton House, has its roots in a little known story. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died from cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Although not well known, she is behind some of most important medical advances over the past 70 years. This is because her cells were harvested by doctors, without her knowledge or consent, and have been used ever since to test drugs and medical interventions. Moreover they changed her name from Henrietta Lacks to Helen Larson to make her cells more acceptable to white society.  

In the words of the Adebayo, Family Tree is Henrietta speaking to us from the petrie dish. She describes what happened to her as she became essentially a commodity to be used.

Keziah Joseph, Mofetoluwa Akande, and Aimee Powell with Alistair Hall in the background. Photo by Helen Murray

What follows is an unapologetic and powerful rage against racism and the exploitation of Black people covering the last 400 years. The play moves across time, as alongside Henrietta are three enslaved Black women upon whom medical experiments were performed, and three Black female nurses who face racism and discrimination in today’s NHS. The shadow of slavery and tobacco plantations is ever present in the form of a silent smoking man who appears ghostlike throughout the piece demonstrating graphically how Black people carry the weight of history. 

The cast of Family Tree. Photo by Helen Murray

The scene is a garden in which the characters sit or wander and tell their stories. There are storming performances from the cast who move seamlessly between times and characters with energy and grace. The script is witty, lyrical and clever, with touches of rap and poetry. The sheer exuberance of the language often stands in contrast to the horrors being described and so serves to bring them into sharper focus.

Aminita Francis as Henrietta Lacks. Photo by Helen Murray

Although the evils of white supremacy-  or why supremacy according to one of the nurses – are at the centre of the play and form the main narrative thread, Adebayo also raises broader issues. Capitalist exploitation, climate change, inequality and the denial of basic rights all appear. If I had one small criticism, it would be that so many important issues are packed into the 90 minutes, some might be missed.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the grim realities being described, the play is also uplifting. Not only are there glimpses of humour and joy, magic and dance, but the whole piece is a testimony to the strength and resilience of Black women. The audience is not just transported to the evils of the past, but encouraged to look forward to a brighter future.

Aminita Francis as Henrietta Lacks. Photo by Helen Murray

Family Tree is a co-production between Actors Touring Company, and Belgrade Theatre Coventry, in association with Brixton House.

It runs until 23rd April in Brixton House, 385 Coldharbour Lane SW9 8GL

Tickets £21, £17 concessions.

For further information call 020 7582 7680 or visit