At Round House Theatre, a playwright explores the many layers of loss

As befits a play named for a mourning ritual that is celebratory as well as sorrowful, the Round House Theatre production of British playwright and actor Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night” is an upbeat occasion — it’s the work’s belated American premiere — with a bittersweet backstory. To begin with, a death in Gordon’s British Jamaican family spurred her work on the script, about a family in London observing a traditional Jamaican wake.

Her writing was also a response to frustration with her career. An acting veteran who has credits with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other companies, she found herself talking some years ago with a group of actress friends — predominantly women of color — who, like her, felt professionally unfulfilled as they neared or passed age 40. “We were always the secondary or third characters, or the support, but had never really been given an opportunity to hone our craft,” remembers Gordon, 46.

The group encouraged her to stretch creatively, and she embarked on what became her debut play. “Nine Night” proved such a critical and popular hit when it premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2018 that it transferred, becoming the first play by a Black British female playwright to be produced in the West End.

Round House originally scheduled the production for the 2021-2022 season, only to postpone it due to covid-19. New season, new prospects: In the lead-up to this month’s opening, Gordon spoke about the play from her home in London.

This interview, conducted over Zoom and email, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Could you explain the funeral tradition that gives the play its title?

A: It’s about coming together to celebrate the deceased. Also, depending on how deeply connected you are to the tradition, there’s a sense that you are helping the deceased pass through to the other side. So there’s a process for the living of letting go, and allowing the spirit to go. It’s a very profound traditional ritual experience. Nobody really knows why it is nine nights specifically. It doesn’t have to be nine consecutive nights. It can be one.

Q: Tell me how the play came to be.

A: I had had a curiosity from funerals I had attended with Caribbean and British families. They were poles apart. I wanted to explore that. And then I had my own experience with a Nine Night when my grandmother passed away. As a family, we were celebrating this incredible deep-rooted tradition that helps us deal with, manifest, work through grief. But I didn’t know much about it. I was disappointed with myself that I didn’t know more about my own culture.

Q: Why didn’t you know more?

A: It is one of those things that is quite usual for immigrants: a process of assimilation that you either go with, or you don’t. My maternal grandparents [who immigrated to Britain from Jamaica, and with whom Gordon spent time while growing up] were proud of their British citizenship. They were taught Shakespeare and Wordsworth at school at the expense of their own African/Jamaican heritage. Their colonial education taught them to see Britain as the motherland. I feel — and it’s just a feeling — that when they arrived in Britain, in order to assimilate, they unconsciously pulled away from their African heritage. A sense of belonging/not belonging is something I’ve tussled with my whole life. Who receives me as British, and who receives me as Jamaican? There’s always that conflict.

Q: Has your own acting experience informed the play?

A: Having been in plays for 20-plus years does serve me as a writer. As an actor, you’re constantly asking your director: “What am I doing in this scene?” And asking yourself: “What is my function?” Scenes should be as active as possible, the dialogue propelling the story forward. As a performer, you really feel that moment when the stage is buzzing with energy. With “Nine Night,” the characters were always actively doing something to each other, and when they weren’t, that presented itself to me really clearly.

Q: Have you done any tinkering with the script for U.S. audiences?

A: No. With the director, Timothy Douglas, we’ve taken the approach that it’s a window into a Black Jamaican London British experience.

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Q: Do you think the play struck a chord because, for many of us, death is so taboo?

A: I think it struck a chord because people recognized a tradition well known, loved and respected. Within the Jamaican British community, there was a sense that they hadn’t seen, certainly not for a long time, something that wasn’t a watering down. Also, the similarities with traditions of other cultures — there was a fascination with that as well. We’ve got better during the pandemic, because we have to face death on a global scale, but it’s still difficult to talk about. It’s almost as if by talking about death, we’re inviting it into our lives. It’s so ridiculous, because we’re only going one way. I think there was an element of feeling [that the play’s treatment of death was] refreshing. And also anything where we can laugh alongside the recognition is always welcome, when it’s done sensitively and truthfully.

Q: Did you work hard to make sure there was humor?

A: Not at all. I sat down to write a play about grief. But it’s like anything with life: There’s always the two sides. We find ourselves laughing in the most awkward — and extreme — and bleak and dark situations. Because it’s also about survival.

Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.

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