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Director Roy Alexander Weise in rehearsal for Nine Night at the National Theatre (c) Helen Murray

Nine Night at the National Theatre

20 April 2018 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Director Roy Alexander Weise sparkles with talent and enthusiasm, and roars with belly laughs. As a young director he has already directed new work at the Royal Court, Young Vic, Arcola, Finborough and Theatre 503. Now Weise directs Natasha Gordon’s debut play Nine Night at the National Theatre.

London Callin: What is Nine Night about?

Roy Alexander Weise: Nine Night is a play about a family’s grief and all of the things that come out once someone has died. The grandmother of this family passes away. In Jamaican culture there is this ceremony called Nine Night where the community and family of the deceased gather to celebrate their life. The story is told through this structure where the family observe nine nights of mourning.

LC: It must be quite tiring to celebrate and mourn for nine nights!

RAW: Or liberating! The experience is different for everyone. There is space created traditionally for the people grieving to acknowledge their grief publicly, but that can be difficult if that isn’t what a person wants. Sometimes you’ve got to go along with it, because that is what the tradition is. So where is the room for that individual and their personal experience of grief? It’s complex because each experience of loss for each person, not just in the play but in life, is completely individual to them, their relationship to the deceased, and their own philosophies around death and life. It’s such a rich universal experience to be exploring in the play.

Cast in rehearsal for Nine Night at the National Theatre (c) Helen Murray

LC: What is it like giving voice to older Jamaican characters who aren’t normally represented on stage?

RAW: These characters are from the Windrush generation, and so much right this present cultural moment is being excavated from the past. It is seventy years since the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain. This year we are talking about Nationalism, Imperialism, Brexit; it feels like we are having so many conversations about what identity is. It’s exhilarating to present the stories of those people who have been a huge part of building our country and making it what it is today. It’s exciting to have those people on stage. They are not necessarily talking about their experience of being black, it’s just in their bones, in their blood, in their DNA, that is who they are. The characters make little references to home or about our society, but nonetheless the most important thing about their representation is that they are here, that they are on stage and that it’s their stories we’re telling; it’s not necessarily about the politics of it. Of course that is something we can’t run away from. It’s a political act even just putting those people on stage because they are hardly ever present, especially in British writing. In American writing older black characters feature more prominently, but not so much in British writing at present. For me, it’s wonderful to be able to honour those people who have helped create the society we have inherited.

LC: How can we actively get more black stories on stage?

RAW: There need to be more people of colour in positions of influence within theatres. I’m constantly getting emails like ‘Do you know black actors between this age and that age? Do you know black writers? Do you know black directors?’ I know these people because we belong in the same community as artists all experiencing similar difficulties in having the space to make the work we want to make. If those people are in the theatres helping to steer the decisions of how we access those writers, those artists, that will automatically change so much.

Director Roy Alexander Weise in rehearsal for Nine Night at the National Theatre (c) Helen Murray

It’s vital to give writers of colour the opportunity to write the plays they want to write. Very often (and it’s the same with directing) a black or Asian writer is contacted or commissioned to write a play, but it’s because they are black or Asian, and therefore the play has to be about race. That is so limiting, because that writer might want to write a story about a fairy, and they should be allowed to write that story. People are people first, before they are the colour of their skin. People experience life in many ways, and it’s sad that in theatre, we are constantly reminding ourselves of the injustice, and not just celebrating the artist for who they are, who they want to be, and giving them the space to express what they want to express. It’s difficult and sometimes painful as a black artist to constantly be reminded that your race makes you a victim all the time. What’s brilliant about Nine Night is that the play doesn’t come from that place. It’s about these people experiencing their loss, and it just so happens to be through the formality of Nine Night which is a Jamaican tradition. It’s about people experiencing loss and love and trying to find acceptance.

LC: As a Black Lives Matter supporter, how do you weave your support into
your work?

 
RAW: I’m interested in exploring a space where theatre expresses that black lives matter by presenting black people in all of their complexity: putting people on stage who are difficult to connect with, giving those challenges to an audience, allowing us to tell stories about black people that are set within formally, theatrically, complex structures that challenge the way an audience engage with these people.

Nine Night premiers at the National Theatre 21 April to 26 May.
 
 
 
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