Natasha Gordon's play Nine Night which celebrates the tradition of a Jamaican nine-night wake opens at Leeds Playhouse
Then, just before Christmas, Gordon became the first Black British female playwright to have a play in the West End, when her remarkable Nine Night transferred to Trafalgar Studios.
At the time Gordon was sanguine about this extraordinary feat. When asked by the Guardian how she felt about the achievement, her response was ‘how can I celebrate that in 2018’?
Gordon’s history-making success came as Britain was in the middle of the Windrush Scandal, when Theresa May’s government, under the Hostile Environment legislation, was revealed to have illegally deported Black Britons to countries in the Caribbean.
It made it all the more powerful that Nine Night was being celebrated in this environment because the play is rooted in Gordon’s Jamaican heritage. Just as Britons whose ancestors came from West Indian Islands like Jamaica were being targeted, here was Gordon celebrating that ancestry on stage.
A year and a half after Gordon’s play transferred to London’s West End, the world shifted on its axis with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
The murder sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and Gordon’s play, about Black lives and death, took on a deeper resonance. The movement also forced organisations to soul search and many institutions have committed to anti-racist policies and are looking to, as the modern parlance has it, do the work.
It is within this context that the impressive Amanda Huxtable prepares to bring the regional premiere of Nine Night to the stage.
She says: “Like everything worth doing, gathering our teams together wasn’t easy. It took patience, deep listening and the belief that the right combination of people from our region and our country could tell this tale at this time for our audiences. This is it.”
Officially opening at Leeds Playhouse tonight, audiences can expect a piece of theatre that takes them into the tradition of a Jamaican Nine Night wake.
The tradition, rooted in Africa, sees a celebration of the life of someone who has passed that takes place nine nights after death, the point at which tradition dictates the spirit leaves the body.
Gordon’s play tells the story of matriarch Gloria who has died and whose family gather for her traditional Jamaican wake. Children and grandchildren gather to mark her passing, reflecting the warm humour and deep sorrow that accompanies their gathering together.
Given the context of the passing of the Queen, you expect the play to take on deeper significance.
“Nine Night is a comedy and celebration of life after the loss of a much-loved mother and grandmother and it has touched us all deeply. The passing of the Queen underlines the importance of ritual, remembrance and paying our respects to families who are suffering loss, no matter who they may be. I have said before, our nation could do with a Nine Night; it’s a great way of supporting and working through loss and celebrating lives well lived. I didn’t know how important this production would turn out to be.”
When it was first staged, the play was not just history making, but was critically acclaimed, winning three Evening Standard Theatre Awards, Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards and being nominated for an Olivier.
The three-week run coming to the stage at Leeds Playhouse is done so in partnership with the Out of Many Festival, a nine-month festival organised by the Jamaica Society of Leeds organised to celebrate 60 years of Jamaican independence.
Huxtable says audiences will get ‘togetherness’ from the play. “That’s what we as a team have found. People need people and laughter is a good healer,” she says. “It’s a celebration of Jamaican and Caribbean culture, the language, the food, the dynamics and the make-up of family and all that entails. I’ve had many people mention how much they loved the production from 2018, so I’m excited to hear what they think about this new production and cast and creatives who now get to share our take on a great script.”
At Leeds Playhouse, until October 15.