GDIF: Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo – Review – ★★★★★
A beautifully poetic site-responsive promenade performance inspired by the little-known story of Henrietta Lacks and her stolen cells.
Greenwich + Dockland International Festival (GDIF) is one of our favourite cultural events on the calendar for its inclusivity, community and the power of spectacle to challenge our world. Shows like Family Tree – penned by British born, Nigerian/Danish multi-hyphenate Mojisola Adebayo and directed by Actors Touring Company Artistic Director Matthew Xia – are the very best examples of what this festival can showcase.
Most audience members will arrive with little knowledge of Henrietta Lacks, despite her ongoing influence on our lives. Family Tree sets out to right that wrong, exploring issues of ethics, racism, and a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body, and drawing a line between Lacks – who died in 1951 in Baltimore – and women engaged with the NHS in 21st century Britain.
The devastating cruelty of the worlds of medical science and business taking Henrietta’s cells for scientific research without her consent needs to be explored in a post-vaccine world.
Michelle Asante is captivating as Henrietta, inviting the audience to follow her – literally and figuratively – between scenes from her life and after-life. Interspersed are scenes with Natasha Cottriall, Keziah Joseph and Diana Yekinni as NHS workers in times of Covid, and then as enslaved women who were experimented on in gynaecological surgeries.
It’s hardly joyous subject matter, but it is testament to Adebayo’s deft writing and the layered, nuanced performances of the excellent cast, that there are rhythms of light and shade flowing throughout the 90 minute running time. There is melancholy and anger and a sense of sad resignation, but also a joyousness, humour and optimism which burst through despite it all.
Indeed, by the end of the performance, audiences are encouraged to dance towards a curtain-call which itself leads to a spot of community al fresco dining. No gimmick, but rather a forward-facing moment to take solace in community, and to look forward to a better future.
There’s a lot to be said for the aptness of the bucolic setting, with the colourful gardens of Charlton House providing the stage for such dark subject matter. Xia finds a way to allow the venue to play its own part without ever upstaging the players, and the disability accessible promenade nature of the performance feels integral to the storytelling.
Family Tree is billed as a work in progress, and inevitably later productions will find themselves confined to more traditional staging – nothing feels unfinished or under construction here, though.