generation storm: nine night review / tanya compas

“Wait but, is the play something that I will actually like though?”

This is a question asked by one of the young women I mentor, before I offered her a ticket to the show.

You see, theatres, like many creative arts and cultural spaces, are generally inaccessible to young people – especially those who hail from marginalised backgrounds. Young people are led to believe that theatres are only places you go to on school trips when you’re in primary school or spaces enjoyed only by the white, the upper class or the privileged.

On 25 April, thanks to the fundraising efforts of Tobi Kyeremateng and Damilola Odelola with their initiative, the ‘Black Ticket Project‘, I was able to bring a group of young girls I mentor from Brixton, aged between 17-21, to the National Theatre to watch Nine Night. For many, it was the first time they had gone to the theatre since primary school, for two budding actresses in the group it was the first time they’d gone to a show with a predominantly Black cast, and for one of my young women it was the first time she had ever been to the theatre.

I genuinely cannot think of a better play to welcome her into the world of theatre and the arts.

Before the show started, my young women seemed quite uncomfortable sitting close to the front of the stage of a large theatre; they were not too sure how to sit, how to act or how to “fit in”. I mean, was it actually OK to “laugh out loud” in a theatre setting? Their worries were quickly lulled by the sweet sounds of old school reggae playing as the show opened, and they slowly sat back into their seats and opened the bag of Tesco popcorn they had snuck into the theatre beforehand.

When you ask many families from the Black community what holds their family together, I’m pretty sure many would list: food, music, dance, gossip and tradition – all of which are the foundation of Nine Night. It’s this that makes the play relatable, not only to those of Jamaican descent or those from the West Indies, but to those across the African and Black Diaspora.

Nine Night tells the story of the nine-day Jamaican mourning period, following the death of the mother, grandmother, sister and matriarch, Gloria. Throughout the nine nights of celebrations following Gloria’s death, writer Natasha Gordon explores the juxtaposition of mourning death whilst simultaneously celebrating it, weaving in issues such as toxic masculinity, Jamaican traditions, interracial relationships, sacred rituals and the importance of family. As audience members, we felt as though we were a part of the family and, over the course of the nine days of mourning, we were taken on an emotional journey from crying tears of laughter to crying tears of sadness. Either way, if you’re going to watch the play (which you most definitely should!), make sure you bring a packet of Kleenex tissues along with you to wipe those tears away.

Personally, the most impactful moment from the play was that, for once, my young women didn’t feel like they were an “other” in an institutionally white space. They felt represented, they felt like Nine Night was an ode to them, an ode to Black culture and an ode to growing up with traditions that were anything but British. It was the small touches in the play that felt like private jokes written in, that could only be deciphered by the Black people in the audience. Jokes that induced laughter from the pit of your stomach, that had other people in the audience shooting us questionable looks as if to say, “but where was the joke?”. It was the crate of Red Stripe beer left by the sink, it was the Wray and Nephew rum being drunk by the bottle, it was Trudy coming back from Jamaica with a suitcase full of undeclared items, fresh fruit, vegetables and rum going undetected because “customs are too busy with the Al-Qaedadem”, rather than trying to catch her. It was the guests overstaying their welcome, dancing and drinking into the early hours, the expectation for the host family to provide a never-ending sea of food and alcohol and the never-ending storytelling that was all too familiar to my young women and I.

The set echoed many a West Indian grandmothers home, from the white doilies on the furniture to the rum hidden under the sink. After watching Nine Night, I had an overwhelming need to call my Great Aunt (who I call my Grandma) because whilst she’s French Guyanese and living in Brazil, the set reminded me of her home. It just goes to show that no matter how far reaching the Black diaspora grows, the white doilies and vast number of framed family photos will surely follow suit.

The celebration of the older Jamaican family members, and the older West-Indian generation in general, was all the more poignant considering the current climate where we are seeing the complete disregard for the lives of Caribbean people, and watching them be forcibly removed to countries that they have not called home for many years. Whilst the show itself is not intrinsically political, the very act of having Black bodies on a stage, existing as their whole selves, is political in itself.

Nine Night brought into question how you honour and celebrate your ‘home’ country’s tradition and culture when you, yourself, have not been born there or lived there. How you juggle your British identity with your Black identity, how you combat the feeling of losing parts of yourself and your roots, as your family assimilates further into British culture, and the impending distance that it can create between yourself and your family members who still live ‘back home’.

As a youth worker who prides myself on providing representation for the young women I mentor, Nine Night was incredibly important; it provided representation, it was relatable and it opened up a conversation. The biggest sign that a young person has been engaged is when they ask follow up questions. As we were walking out of Nine Night –along with screaming out cries of “GLORIA”- the Generation STORM girls couldn’t stop asking questions. Luckily enough for them, actor Oliver Alvin-Wilson, who played Robert in the play, was kind enough to spend some time speaking with the girls and answering their questions. In particular, mentioning just how important it was to be in a play, far removed from the world of Shakespeare, that celebrated Black British bodies.

To Natasha Gordon: Thank you for writing Nine Night.

To Tobi and Damilola, thank you so much for making the play accessible to the 240 young people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. What you have created is important.

My young women left asking, “when is the next play?” and that in itself leaves me with a question to theatres:

What are you doing to make your plays accessible to young people – particularly young people of colour?”

tanya compas is a youth worker, community organiser and LGTBQ+ advocate, currently working as the Youth Engagement Officer at UK Black Pride.

check out the Black Ticket Project fundraiser here.

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