Nine Night by Natasha Gordon
The Title 'Nine Night'
This title worked as a great marketing tool to bring an African descent audience flooding through the usually very white space of the National Theatre. I already knew what the play would be about - and took great pleasure in educating my manager (and the rest of my colleagues) on what a Nine Night is.
I think a play like this was long overdue, especially from a South London institution which has housed a very large Jamaican community since the Windrush arrived here in 1948. My heart was filled with joy as I saw a large number of black people flood the Dorfman foyer, which also played some classic reggae tunes. I think the last time the NT had such a takeover from the Caribbean community was when Amen Corner was on. But what made this takeover different was the fact that Nine Night is set in London and documents a factual Black British event. A Nine Night!
So what does Nine Night mean?
The Nine nights (and days) leading up to the burial of a loved one that has passed (Wiki search). But what it meant to me growing up, was that someone had died and we had to show the family of the person who had passed - love and support. We usually did/ do this by getting out the rum from our last JA visit and cooking a pot of 'ital' food to bring.
What are its origins?
Its origin is in Africa (where most things originate from). And is a tradition that our ancestors - the enslaved Africans brought with them to the Caribbean and kept.
Pause - Let's be careful with language here - and re-look at how we use it and the perspective it comes from. 'Enslaved' rather than 'slave'.
There are rituals attached to a Nine Night to encourage the spirit of the deceased to cross over (another wiki search). But a personal ritual that is an actual thing my family does after each Nine Night, is to spin three times before entering back into the home - to confuse the spirit of the person just passed and ensure it doesn't follow you.
Check out this Dinki Dance on the proudjamaicans instagram page. This dance is performed in Jamaica during one of the days of a Nine Night.
Nine Night the play is set in the family kitchen, with reference to the bedroom. The kitchen also included the 'living' room to the front of the kitchen - downstage. I thought this was a great choice of setting, as the kitchen represents food, health, women bonding and is where all the action starts in many Caribbean homes. I did miss the intimacy and conversations that I imagine usually takes place in a bedroom. I also missed the vibrancy from the party! There is something about music, drunken uncles and laughter that helps us 'get through' a death. I know when my own grandmother died it was after the funeral when everybody returned to work and stopped coming around that caused me to fall into a deep depression. The silence was and still is unbearable.
I loved the direction and thought it was the best part! I especially enjoyed the direction around the last scene which we shall name 'channeling'.
When watching the 'Channeling' scene - I was at first, overwhelmed and concerned about it appearing to dramatic and 'voodoo' like for a white audience.
Pause again - Why? Why is it I get nervous when a black person is on screen or stage?
What is it that want me to want them to 'behave themselves'?
Here's a book on my book list I think has the answers -Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
But looking around at the very diverse audience and seeing it with my friends and family reaffirmed confidence. And actually, having been raised by an old-school Christian Jamaican woman, whom I lived with from 10 to 21 (when she died) - it's that dramatic!! Seated at the back of the Dorfman Pit, I felt the spirit and couldn't stop the tears streaming.
The story-line had some holes and I came away with a lot of questions about some of the characters identity.
Did an affair happen between Gloria (the mother who passed) and Alvin (Maggie - Gloria's cousin's - husband)?
Was Maggie aware of this affair?
Is it the root of why Maggie seemed so jealous of Gloria?
Is Robert a 'Jacket' child (Google Jamaican definition of Jacket baby)?
Will Roberts relationship with his wife survive?
Why is Robert adamant not to have children?
Where is Anita's father?
Is Anita's father English (white)?
Does Anita's absent father impact her identity and need to fit in?
Despite the holes - Rebekah Murrell's portrayal of Anita trying 'a bit too much' to be black, proud and secure was a familiar narrative and I think this definitely resonated with my own struggle to fit in. I don’t have a white parent, but there is another mixed-race experience that is seldom mentioned. It is when your family and ancestors are not from this place and have different ways of doing things, customs and beliefs. Yet you were born, educated and raised here but will never be accepted as native.
I also enjoyed Michelle Greenidge's portrayal of Trudy, the Jamaican sister that was left in Jamaica to grow up. Again this is a familiar narrative and many familes - both in the Caribbean and the African continent are split up. The effects of colonisation and class biases have seriously affected black majority countries, and as a result parents will leave their children to work in a 'wealthier' country or send their children to live in that 'wealthier' country.
One final pause.
Let's think slowly and deeply about the emotional and psychological effect a parent leaving you in another country has...
As mentioned before Cecilia Noble as Maggie was my favourite character and embodied everything I associate with an older Jamaican Christian woman. The skill associated with this is over-looked because Cecilia is a lot younger than the character of Maggie. There is also something special about an Actress who chooses not to compromise the character for a particular audience - as what that often does is, ironically, exclude the audience members who are from the characters culture.
She was my absolute favourite and definitely stole the show!
My Thoughts Overrall:
I think the production also did well at capturing real relationships and issues within any family - which meant everyone could relate and feel included. The balance between the sadness surrounding a loved one's death and comical innuendoes was perfect. And just one last time, I must mention Cecilia Noble's character as Maggie, which brought tears to my eyes as it triggered memories of the behaviour of my late Gran. It's in the walk, the body postures, the sounds of disapproval, the nosiness and playing the victim.
Before going to sleep each night my Gran would go through each member of the family and dedicate 10 minutes (at least) in prayer. She prayed for every members health and wealth in this life. It was common, at around 2 o'clock in the morning, for me to be awoken but a sudden and loud 'HALLELUJAH' from my Grandmother in the room beneath me and in the middle of her prayer session. At the time I would curse (silently/ to myself) for my lack of sleep... now I lack sleep longing to hear her holler again.
Overall rating - ✮✮✮✮✮
Written by Natasha Gordon - her debut play and Directed by Roy Alexander Weise.
Dates at the National Theatre: 21 April to 26 May 2018
Where can I watch the performance?
Nine Night is transferring to Trafalgar Studio from December. Click here for more details - Nine Night.
Check out this short taster with the cast below!