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Round House Theatre’s production of Nine Night has long awaited its U.S. debut after its 2018 premiere at the U.K.’s National Theatre. The play received West End acclaim for its timely meditations on race and immigration in the 21st century. But Natasha Gordon’s script finds new resonance in a period of unprecedented mourning in the wake of COVID-19 and a global reckoning with a racialized present. Coincidentally, today, the play might also serve as a response to the death of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. The legacy of British imperialism is clearly reflected in Nine Night’s poignant discussions of race and immigration. And Tim Mackabee’s set design includes a portrait of the play’s deceased matriarch, Gloria, looming authoritatively over the action, as though she herself were a monarch.
Under Timothy Douglas’ direction, the play is both indifferently clever and enduringly heartfelt. Nine Night opens with Gloria’s forthcoming death. Gloria’s daughter Lorraine (Lilian Oben) leads the cast with dynamic and emotive melancholy. Oben stands out with intense heart and desperation in every choice her character makes. Lorraine’s brother, Robert (Avery Glymph), is a necessary dramatic foil as he considers the family’s economic future while forgetting the immediate longings for partnership and family felt by his wife, Sophie (Katie deBuys). Lorraine’s daughter Anita (Kaitlyn Boyer) breathes youthful energy and hope into the story as a new mother. As members of this Jamaican British family living in London pass on, move away, and grow up—and new family members arrive—Gordon’s script reminds us that life is a revolving door, and Round House Theatre’s production shows us it’s okay to linger in the doorway if “goodbye” came too early.
The play’s title refers to a Caribbean funeral tradition in which the friends, family, and community of the deceased celebrate, mourn, and pave the way for the spirit to move on to the next life with encouragement from their loved ones. Nine Night is told in a series of vignettes set in Gloria’s living room during her wake. Characters move in and out, struggle and fight, mend and grieve in the course of the play’s 105 minutes. Dramatic conflict certainly arises, but, for the majority of the script, this feels contrived. The play introduces a plot on whether to sell the family home to developers, summoning a narrative arc akin to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. This plotline adds conflict, but it is never fully resolved. Only midway through does the audience begin to connect the script’s irresolute feelings and actions to the greater sense of uncertainty and grief, which mainly affects Lorraine, the protagonist and the likely inheritor of Gloria’s legacy. For this reason, the play is specifically about the experience of grief, rather than what happens after.
Extended family members Vince (Doug Brown) and Maggie (Kim James Bey) provide much-needed comic relief to the exasperated family dynamic. A surprising guest (Joy DeMichelle) midway through the play blurs the transcontinental borders that define Gordon’s themes of race, family, and a sense of home. DeMichelle’s entrance is the most dramatic and sets the climax in motion. She brings the full family together and leaves the audience longing for tensions to explode.
While the script reveals one or two plot holes, Nine Night is a lovely, intimate play. Mackabee’s astonishingly detailed set design calls to mind a moment in Gordon’s script where the family reflects on the true value of their mother’s home. The house is not merely a residence, but a collection of memories and memorabilia. These remnants gain more and more significance as the play unfolds. Evocative lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II makes the play visually stunning. I found myself in many moments seeing the light as perhaps the characters would—the haze of an early morning, the dim glow of an heirloom lamp, even the light of an iPhone—mesmerizing but somehow foreign in the wake of grief.
Spirits arrive at the home in both a literal and metaphysical sense. Even the skeletons in the closet come out to pay their respects. Tensions run high, and libations flow as the vignettes are varied enough to reflect nine whole nights of intimacy and community. Gordon was the first Black British woman to headline the West End, and Nine Night is certainly not memoriam for this artist, but a well-lit path towards a life that is to come.
Nine Night, written by Natasha Gordon and directed by Timothy Douglas, runs through Oct. 9 at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. roundhousetheatre.org. $39–$81.