Actors Touring Company has announced a tour of a new play about the legacy of Black woman Henrietta Lacks whose cancer cells revolutionised medical research.

Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo is described as a powerful and poetic drama that explores not only Lacks’ contribution – given unwittingly without consent – as well as race, health and the environment.

The production is a co-production with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, in association with south London’s Brixton House. It will be directed by Matthew Xia, artistic director of Actors Touring Company (ATC).

Originally commissioned by ATC and the Young Vic in 2020, the play was showcased as an outdoor work-in-progress piece at the 2021 Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. This new 2023 tour will be the first fully realised stage production.

The Belgrade Theatre Coventry will stage the world premiere in March 2023 followed by a London premiere at Brixton House in April 2023. The play will then tour until June, visiting venues across the country including performances in Keswick, Ipswich and Nottingham.

Xia 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.

“Henrietta’s HeLa cell line forms the basis of the most important medical research and breakthroughs across the last 70 years, from cancer and HIV to Covid. We owe our lives to her. Denied her place in history, now is the time to bring Henrietta’s epic legacy alive on stage.”

Adebayo added: “When I met Matthew Xia, Henrietta Lacks came into our minds at exactly the same time. Xia is magic but Lacks is more: she’s immortal and her body has touched every life on the planet – yours, mine… So why have so few people heard of her? Let alone Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha and more…

“The play paints a family tree of Black women whose cells, blood and waters have birthed, raised and changed the world.”

Family Tree is the current winner of the Alfred Fagon Award, the leading Black British playwrighting prize, for best original stage play.

Pauline Walker, creative production for the awards, said: “Mojisola Adebayo is a thrilling playwright who infuses her writing with epic ideas, vision and compassion and we’re delighted that Family Tree is now being produced and will go on tour.”

Brixton House’s artistic director Gbolahan Obesisan added: “Family Tree spotlights the story of Henrietta Lacks and what we owe to her legacy. 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.”

The cast and creative team will be announced in early 2023.

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