What does black death look like? So often, black bodies and the way they stop breathing are only viewed through a lens of trauma, at least when we see black death on our film and TV screens. When it comes to theatre, the death of black people in Britain is as unseen as the lives we live before we die, that is to say, rare but not non-existent. There are more black people seen on stage today than many of us dared to hope for a decade ago. However it’s often easy to forget that the growing visibility of black faces on stage does not necessarily mean there’s an abundance of plays about the normality of black lives. So-called ‘black stories’ on British stages are also almost always African-American black stories, and if they are British, they are typically soaked in physical violence. Not so with Natasha Gordon’s debut Nine Night, playing on the National’s Dorfman stage this spring.
In Nine Night, we follow one Jamaican family as they look after their dying matriarch Gloria, and then have to lay her to rest. As many Caribbeans and Africans know, the death of a loved one is not a simple affair, and this story is no exception. Gloria has died and her family must partake in the traditional Nine Night celebrations. This means nine full days and nights of mourning, the Jamaican way, with lots of friends, food, drink, and dancing. However Gloria, unseen by the audience in life and death, is not at the heart of this play. Instead, grief is, and its exploration of grief—particularly, black grief—is a stellar one.
Over the course of the play, we meet Gloria’s assorted family members: her cousin Maggie and Maggie’s husband Vince, her children in the UK Robert and Lorraine, Robert’s (white, English) wife Sophie, Lorraine’s daughter Anita, and the daughter she left behind in Jamaica, Trudy. Each grieves in a different way, both for Gloria but also the country they find themselves standing in.
Lorraine, the sister who took redundancy to support her mother’s final days, is played with a steely fragility by Franc Ashman. She clearly gets things done, and watching her unravel, unable to let her mother go, is painful but deeply recognizable to anyone who has ever grieved. Oliver Alvin-Wilson plays Robert as an outwardly angry, tormented foil to Lorraine’s more internal suffering, and the competitive but frustrated sibling relationship between the two feels so, so real. Gordon’s script doesn’t over-egg this, and so when Lorraine does launch into a quiet monologue about the differences between the two of them as babies learning to walk, everything feels explained in a few lines. The two really bounce off of one another, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
Michelle Greenidge’s Trudy is similarly forceful, and the life she breathes into the other characters after her late arrival feels like she has tipped the stage on its head. So often, us children of the diaspora focus on ourselves, and our lives here in a Britain that likes to remind us that we will never be wanted as much as we hoped. However Greenidge’s Trudy shows the other side, the way those left behind often felt abandoned.
Ricky Fearon as kindly but sharp Uncle Vince is every inch the old Jamaican Windrush-era man who came here for a better life. He tries to keep his head down, wants peace in his family, and fiercely loves the younger people around him; each time he calls Anita (aka his wife’s cousin’s granddaughter) “daughter” is so tender, it reminds me of how rarely black fathers are portrayed in a positive, familial light. Hattie Ladbury’s Sophie is similarly subtle in her love for her husband and her eagerness to please, but Sophie is also such a clever character. She acknowledges the politics of race with the unspoken acceptance, and Ledbury’s comic timing and pivot to sadness means middle class, white Sophie becomes more than just a stereotype.
Rebekah Murrell’s Anita, however, often feels secondary to other characters around her. How does she feel? What does she want? Murrell, who was impressive in the National Youth Theatre’s production of The Host at The Yard last year, never quite convinces us of her grief in the way that her family members do. I also found myself longing to know more about her apparent political ‘militancy’, which doesn’t go much further on stage than refusing to brush her hair and wearing bright colours. As the play progresses, though, she comes to life, particularly during her interactions with her mother’s siblings. It’s a shame, then, that she isn’t a part of the play’s blisteringly climatic final scene, despite the fact this decision definitely makes more dramatic sense.
Nine Night perhaps belongs to Celia Noble’s Aunt Maggie, an incredible character bolstered by an equally strong performance. Noble, already an award-winning, scene-stealing actress, seems to revel in a role that is part no-nonsense comedy, part supernatural tragic reflections on family. Middle aged black women in this country as so often figures of fun, regularly reduced to a comedy Caribbean or West African accent in a comedian’s TV special. Noble manages to play the humour of Aunt Maggie and the many women like her without making fun—the audience might be laughing at her exaggerations and lamentations, but she is never the butt of the joke. Gordon’s script helps this, and Noble has the best lines, with zingers like “we don’t cook our people” with regards to cremation, and “this teefing government” adding to the joy of the play.
The framing of Nine Night is a simple one, and it works well. 1 hour and 50 minutes straight through, with no interval, the play seems to have taken to heart the idea that stories on stage should begin as late as possible and end as early as possible. The play ends abruptly, something I can imagine would jar some audience members, but something I loved. Natasha Gordon’s script is wonderful, and funny, too, bouncing quickly between the highs and lows of life and death with ease. Director Roy Alexander Weise, fresh from Theatre 503’s inspiring production of Br’er Cotton, clearly is embracing the move to a bigger space. With the help of Movement Director Shelley Maxwell, the actors on stage flit around the stage, each movement deliberate and precise. Weise seems to have injected a real pace into Gordon’s already fast-moving script, and simple things like the use of different levels and the tableau-like scattering of the actors when they are all on stage, makes the production just look really good.
Designer Rajha Shakiry, whose design for Misty at the Bush recently was a highlight in an already fascinating production, really goes to town here. The play is set in the kitchen of a Windrush-era Jamaican woman, and the attention to detail is beyond impressive. The wallpaper, the creeping plants, the dated hob, the thick rimmed photo frames, the food in the fridge—each is exactly what it should be, and immediately recognizable to so many members of the black community. Kinnetia Isidore’s costume and Adele Brandman’s hair and make-up work is similarly great—small touches like Trudy changing her wig, like many black women do day-to-day, really make a difference. The sound (from George Dennis) and lighting (from Paule Constable) deserve mention, too, for mixing the old with the new, and focusing on both.
Nine Night is great play—sharply written, well acted, sad and fun and beautiful. Natasha Gordon’s script is the glue that holds this all together. Often laugh-out-loud funny, the play’s closing moments brings everything to a sharp halt. It would be better to see the play without knowledge of what this final scene entails, but I will say that there’s something so special about putting Black spirituality on stage in a serious way as opposed to a comedic one. Traditional faith systems are a big part of the lives of black people, even Christian ones, but often these beliefs are dismissed as dangerous voodoo, mock-worthy ignorance, or both. It’s a brave decision to not play talk of ghosts and spirits for laughs, and one that requires a real commitment to showing the complexities of black lives. This commitment pays off, and Nine Night is a wonderful confirmation of both the importance and necessity of telling these stories.
Nine Night is on at the National Theatre until 26th May. Book tickets here.