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Queen Mary theatre expert reveals unheard story of medical ethics, racism and human rights in a post-vaccine world

An award-winning new play ‘Family Tree’ tells the little-known tale of one of the most remarkable people in medical history, Henrietta Lacks, exploring her impact on modern healthcare alongside issues of race and environment.

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Henrietta Lacks is one of most influential Black women in modern times, so why haven't you heard of her? The latest play from critically acclaimed theatre artist and Queen Mary University of London lecturer Dr Mojisola Adebayo aims to change this with its UK tour setting off this month.

Henrietta's immortal ‘HeLa’ cells form the basis of the most important medical research and breakthroughs happening today, from cancer to HIV to Covid-19 – but she and her family never knew any of this, because her cells were taken without their knowledge or permission. 

As Henrietta is not the only Black woman to be exploited by the medical establishment, the play also draws lines from her death in 1950s Baltimore back to enslaved women who were experimented on in gynaecological surgeries and forward to women engaged with the NHS today.

Playwright Dr Mojisola Adebayo, lecturer in Queen Mary’s School of English and Drama, explained: “The play paints a family tree of Black women whose cells, blood and waters have birthed, raised and changed the world. Henrietta’s immortal and her body has touched everyone on the planet; we owe our lives to her. Denied her place in history, now is the time to bring Henrietta’s epic legacy to life on stage.”

‘Family Tree’ has already won best new play in the leading Black British playwrighting prize, the Alfred Fagon Award, on the strength of earlier work-in-progress performances. Its cast of celebrated actors includes Mofetoluwa Akande, Aminita Francis, Alistair Hall, Keziah Joseph and Aimée Powell.

Artistic director Matthew Xia, of Actors Touring Company, said: “Mojisola Adebayo is an exceptional writer and I’m excited that her award-winning play will be seen by audiences far and wide. There’s a beauty in her work that responds so well to the present moment whilst also holding historical malpractice to account. It’s fearless, brutally honest, at turns hilarious, and ultimately transformative.”

Performances will take place across 12 locations over 13 weeks, from 10 March to 17 June, with each venue selling tickets at its own prices from £5-£33. The tour starts in Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, travelling across England and Scotland before poignantly ending in Bristol, where a commemorative statue of Henrietta was erected in 2021.

Brixton House, which will host the London shows in April, commented: “Henrietta's story will surprise many, whilst also highlighting the need for medical research to be more transparent - especially as a concern for Black communities. ‘Family Tree’ is an urgent part of our history, and a unique opportunity for the Black diaspora to connect and reflect on how our bodies have long been commodified. It’s an exciting partnership to bring this production to Brixton.”

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