Jackie Kay has had an extraordinary life, which is detailed in her memoir, Red Dust Road. Growing up in Scotland in the 1970s, as the adopted mixed-race child of a Communist couple, young Jackie struggled to fit in with those around her. Experiencing racist attacks, her memoir is an exploration of Jackie’s identity as a young, black woman. Blossoming into an outspoken poet, Jackie Kay decided to trace her birth parents. It is a journey that would stretch from Milton Keynes to Nigeria, her ancestral homeland.
“I want to know what makes me who I am.”
Adapted for the stage by the brilliant Tanika Gupta, Red Dust Road sticks to the memoir’s structure of telling Jackie’s story in a non-linear fashion. Without a chronological timeline, it is a testament to Gupta’s skill as a playwright that it never becomes confusing whether we are in the past or the present. Years projected onto the rear of the stage are a help, but through the characterisation and events depicted, and some superb choices in costumes, you can easily discern what era the story is in.
The script itself is laced with warm humour, which keeps the play entertaining. There are sections that are truly hilarious, such as Jackie’s first meeting with her birth father in Nigeria. Jonathan is a fervent Born Again Christian who tries to convert his own daughter through an excitable sermon, performed with comic brilliance by Stefan Adegbola. The self proclaimed miracle worker is a thousand miles away from the way Jackie imagined her father; a mix between Nelson Mandela and Sidney Poitier.
As Jackie explores her mixed heritage, race is obviously a dominant theme of the play. Red Dust Road pulls no punches in depicting the casual racism that Jackie encountered growing up. It is still shocking to hear people proclaim that “coloured chappies” have a “natural rhythm in your blood“. But the play doesn’t dwell entirely on racism, it also highlights the importance of black writers like Audre Lourde, Toni Morrison, and Wole Soyinke, who were hugely inspirational to Jackie growing up.
Sasha Frost gives a sterling performance as Jackie Kay. The yearning for understanding her identity, and gaining a sense of belonging, drives the play. She carries the play through her narration, which is delivered with conviction, wit, and a wide smile. She is captivating throughout Red Dust Road, even when she isn’t narrating.
The supporting cast is equally strong, with some actors playing numerous characters. Her adoptive parents, played by Lewis Howden and Elaine C Smith anchor Jackie’s character, providing a support network, but also adding a huge amount of humour to the play. Howden’s John spontaneously bursts into song, delightfully reciting ‘Brush up Your Shakespeare’ and Scottish ballads by Robert Burns.
However, with a running time of two and a half hours, some of these recitals of songs and poetry go on for far too long. In one scene, the family perform Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in its entirety. A preposterously funny notion, the ode to a haggis loses its humour, as it is simply too long, and is performed in a heavy Scots dialect that is difficult to decipher. Reciting one verse would have retained the scene’s humour, however it becomes tiresome after a few verses.
This is repeated throughout Red Dust Road, whenever poetry is quoted, or songs are sung. I understand that Jackie Kay is a poet, and the works are important to her life story, but by performing them in their entirety, it causes the play to lose its pace, and it becomes theatrically very dry. Performing a single selective verse, rather than reciting whole pieces of each work could easily shave half an hour from this play, which feels too long.
For a play built around family, identity and roots, it is strange that many important parts of Jackie Kay’s life are overlooked. Her relationship with her son, Matthew, is never touched upon. He is mentioned briefly in conversations, but we don’t how Jackie became pregnant, or anything of her relationship with Matthew’s father. This is the same with her long term lesbian partner. Their relationship is briefly depicted, then seems to be forgotten about.
Overall, Red Dust Road is an interesting depiction of an extraordinary life. Jackie Kay is certainly an inspirational woman. However, this adaptation feels too long and drawn out, mainly because of the numerous, elongated song and poetry recitals. I think these work better in a book than theatrically performed in their entirety. Despite this, it is still an entertaining play that leads you to marvel at one woman’s remarkable life.