Mon 17 Apr 2023


"If you have ever taken medication or had a vaccination, a treatment for Cancer, IVF, HIV - just about anything really, it has been tested on Henrietta’s cells." - Mojisola Adebayo, writer of Family Tree

‘Family Tree’ plays at Theatre by the Lake on Thu 11 May. Read the interview with playwright, Mojisola Adebayo, on the most famous woman you’ve never heard of, the woman behind modern medical science, Henrietta Lacks. Find out why it’s time to shed the light on her story…


Mojisola Adebayo


You’re an actor, director, playwright and academic. Tell us about your previous work.

I’ve been making theatre all over the world for the past 30 years, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe. I started out as a street rapper in the 80s (and the less said about that the better!) I then did a degree in Drama at Goldsmiths, trained in Theatre of the Oppressed with Brazilian theatre practioner and activist Augusto Boal and did lots of theatre for social change work. In around 2005 I embarked on writing my own plays, starting with a landmark trip to Antarctica where I cross dressed as a white man which lead to my first play, Moj of the Antarctic: An African Odyssey. A succession of plays followed including Muhammad Ali and Me, 48 Minutes for Palestine, Desert Boy, The Interrogation of Sandra Bland, Wind/Rush Generation and Nothello. At the moment I’m on a fellowship at University of Potsdam, Germany and am a Writer-on-Attachment to the National Theatre. This year I’ll have two plays touring the UK, Family Tree and also STARS, a co-production with Tamasha and the ICA.

How did Family Tree come into being? 

A few years ago I was given a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s an incredible book from the perspective of a journalist and the Lacks’ family but I also felt I wanted to hear and imagine more from the voice of Henrietta Lacks herself. I stored the book away and then had a totally magical conversation with Director Matthew Xia. We were talking about ideas for plays and concepts like seeds and souls and I said to Matthew, have you heard of Henrietta Lacks? And he said he was thinking of her at that very moment and was about to ask the same. So it’s like she was there and planted a seed in our minds.

Why do we all need to know about the wonder of Henrietta Lacks? 

Henrietta Lacks’ life, death, body, cells and story has affected just about every person on the planet since the 1950s. If you have ever taken medication or had a vaccination, a treatment for Cancer, IVF, HIV – just about anything really, it has been tested on Henrietta’s cells. Her cells have given rise to the greatest biological findings in history and she’s still alive, her cells are still dividing, even as I write… so we all need to take a moment to picture Henrietta Lacks and listen to her remarkable story.

Much of your work draws on hidden histories and untold stories, can you tell us more on why that is? 

I am interested in who is on the edge of society and who is on the edge of the edge. I’m learning a lot about cultivating land and there’s a saying in permaculture (indigenous sustainable agriculture) that ‘the edge is where it’s at’, the edge of a river or a field or a garden or a tree or a hedge – the edge of anything – is the most fertile place from which to grow. I think the same is true in life and art. So, I tell stories about people and subjects that are on the edge in that place that is often forgotten but so rich too. I tell stories not just about Black lives but those who have even been forgotten by us, not known about or excluded. This means my work is very intersectional and often also with women, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities and looks at subjects that the mainstream would sometimes rather look away from or has forgotten about.

Family Tree notably won the 2021 Alfred Fagon Playwriting Award. You said that in writing something beautiful out of the brutal sometimes felt impossible, can you elaborate on that? 

Writing Family Tree was the most painful research process I have had because the play is about extraction from Black female bodies, not just Henrietta Lacks but the forgotten ‘mothers’ of modern gynaecology, African American women who were used in experimental surgeries without consent or pain relief and it is also about the extraction of labour from NHS nurses during the Covid 19 pandemic. I was writing during lockdown and it was really tough to read all these histories and stories from today as well. Although the material comes from brutal stories the ultimate picture and message is one of beauty and transcendence.

The play is touring across the UK to 12 venues. What does it mean to you to see this play experienced by so many communities in so many different places? 

I am so so excited especially about the tour because Henrietta Lacks and the lives of the women in the play have affected e-v-e-r-ybody! Everyone! Of every colour and culture, of every gender and class – all of us! So it is really important that the story is told far and wide. Plus we all need a lift after the pandemic and during this time of austerity and the play is really life affirming and full of hope and wonder.

Director Matthew Xia describes this play as fearless, brutally honest and ultimately transformative. What do you hope audiences are going to take away from the experience?

I hope audiences will go “wow, I never knew that!” I hope their mouths will drop open with laughter, wonder, surprise and even a little outrage. I want people to feel with the play as if these lives were theirs, not the lives of others. I want audiences to talk vigorously on the way home and dream wonderful dreams about the play at night. I want audiences to feel as thankful as I do when I read the stories we are staging. I want people to tell their grandchildren about the real life characters in the play, I want them to look up.


‘Family Tree’ plays at Theatre by the Lake on Thu 11 May. Book you tickets here.