Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, adapted for the stage by Tanika Gupta, is a huge disappointment. It should have had everything going for it. Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (the equivalent of Poet Laureate) is much loved and famed for her humane, warm poetry and short stories as much as her personality. Even if Kay’s work is unknown to you, the subject matter about being mixed race, gay and adopted should ensure its success. Instead this rambling, anecdotal piece jumps back and forth in time, a structure which may work in a memoir but is unsuitable for the stage. There is no sense of dramatic tension, and the audience’s attention is lost.
It should have had everything going for it.
Even the set by Simon Kenny is clumsy: a vast frame, half-gilded, half-tree, a bent ugly bough suggesting Nature v Nurture or civilised Europe and savage Africa? If so, that latter interpretation is unfortunate but its use as a proscenium stage is infrequently used and for a story about a journey its static quality is symbolically inappropriate. Sadly there is too little action in this play: people sitting around reminiscing, looking at photo albums.
There are important themes: what it is like to be black in a white society and yet considered white in Nigeria; why an adopted child wants to find their birth parents however loving their foster ones; why finding your roots is important for a sense of identity and what that means when you are mixed race.
There are wonderful moments: Sasha Frost who plays Jackie brilliantly with wide-eyed curiosity meeting her birth father in Nigeria. A black Nigerian, Jonathan is now a born-again Christian and self-proclaimed healer, performed magnificently by Stefan Adegbola with deep hammy voice, sweeping arm gestures who prays to O My God Almighty to heal his daughter whom he sees as sin. He refuses to acknowledge her publically unless she converts, though this is less prompted by missionary zeal than an attempt to safeguard his own reputation. This is the first scene in the play, though the goal of her journey, so the events that led to this moment are all flash backs contributing to the lack of momentum.
An encounter with Nwanyiafor (lyrically performed by Seroca Davis) a wise woman who welcomes Jackie to her ancestral village is memorable, as is the brief meeting with her half-brother (also played by Adegbola). Both these actors command the stage and could be heard clearly, something that could not be said for many of the white actors who failed to project.
Jackie’s adopted parents, Helen (Elaine C Smith) and John (Lewis Howden) are delightfully played, especially the scene when Helen recounts how she had to hide any signs of her Comunism, hiding newspapers under the sofa, hoping the rustle won’t alert the social worker come to assess whether they are suitable foster parents. Their Scottishness, ceilidh dancing and Maxwell singing or reciting Burns at any opportunity adds life to the play and one is staggered at their generosity of spirit when Jackie has to find her birth parents, showing great interest in photos of her Nigerian half-brother. Her white birth-mother, Elizabeth is movingly played by Irene Allan and the reasons for giving up a baby she calls Joy is shown to have a devastating affect on her, later suffering mental breakdowns and dementia.
There are also scenes with black feminist activists charting Jackie’s intellectual journey as a black writer and a role-call of authors that inspired her, but lists don't make drama and sadly though the dancing is fun, this section slows the drama. Her on stage encounter with Chimamanda in Nigeria, an iconic black writer, is more succesful as her influence is dramatised encouraging Jackie to visit her ancestral village.
So much poignancy and richness here, so many themes of value and yet swamped by the unfocused adaptation. The best thing to do is go read the book.