Nine Night Playwright/Performer Natasha Gordon on Making History in the West End

Nine Night Playwright/Performer Natasha Gordon on Making History in the West End
Natasha Gordon in "Nine Night"
(Photo: Helen Murray)

Actress-playwright Natasha Gordon made history when she became the first-ever black British female dramatist to have a play commercially produced in the West End. First produced by the National Theater, Nine Night at Trafalgar Studios takes its title from Jamaican funerary traditions as they affect a family living in London and mourning the loss of the matriarch, Gloria. Now in her 40s and with copious acting credits behind but as the author (so far) only of this play, the cheerful and expansive Gordon took time one recent afternoon to discuss her epoch-making achievement.

How does it feel to have joined the cast of the commercial transfer of your play, which you weren’t in when it premiered last year at the National? [Gordon has taken the defining role of the daughter, Lorraine.]
Well, it’s really hard to separate the two things [acting and writing]. I remember when I started rehearsals feeling a bit panicky and sort of hoping that the playwright side of me might be subdued a little bit and that I could just go in and do the play.

Am I right to assume that the reality proved more complicated?
Yes, I realized that those two things are never going to be separate, even now. There are times when I’m backstage and I think, “Oh, if I get another shot at this, I’m going to change that line because it’s really annoying.” What’s happening, I think, is that I am visiting the place I was in when I was writing the play and am then embodying it: what a doctor would make of this I don’t know!

Was it a no-brainer that you would take on Lorraine after Franc Ashman left to join the West End company of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?
In fact, there was a while when we didn’t know what decision [Ashman] would make and then when it was clear she was going to be in Harry Potter, I then thought of a couple of other actresses who could step into the role and do a brilliant job.

How, then, did the conversation turn to you?
It became a bit like the elephant in the room, with people saying, “Well, Tash, we’ve got two weeks to rehearse someone that knows the play really well and can play that age bracket”—but it certainly didn’t come immediately. When the idea was first suggested, it absolutely terrified me.

Have you come to quite like the idea of being a playwright who can deliver up parts for you as an actress?
I know there are some actor-writers who write plays that are vehicles for themselves, but that’s never what I set out to do. When I started Nine Night, Lorraine was a few years older than me: I’ve caught up with her now. And I began to think that if I passed up this opportunity, I would regret it later on.

Did you always sense that [Evening Standard Theatre Award nominee for Best Actress] Cecilia Noble would all but steal the play with her ripely comic performance as the fiercely opinionated Aunt Maggie?
I started writing Aunt Maggie with a very clear picture of who she was. Then I worked with Cecilia in [2015 TV movie] Danny and the Human Zoo and the moment I saw her on set and saw her delivery, I went, “What do I have to do to convince this woman to do my play?” I hadn’t even finished writing it and I was already stalking her [laughs]. She absolutely raises the roof and the play would have been very difficult without her.

Might we see an onward life for Aunt Maggie, who feels like a character with further dramatic potential still?
What I can say at this point is that I am looking at taking Aunt Maggie on in another context. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we will see of her.

Was it difficult as a writer finding so much humor amid the grim landscape of funerals?
I think it came from being involved with helping plan my grandma’s funeral, which was the first time I experienced the extremes you find at such events of people howling and sobbing one minute and being doubled over with laughter the next. Those two things are always running alongside one another—in my experience anyway.

Is that where the play came from: a direct response to loss?
I’d always been fascinated with funerals and how Jamaican funerals were so different from British ones and I had thought that I would like to do something with that one day. Before my grandma passed away, I had started writing scenes about a second-generation Jamaican family based in the U.K., but it wasn’t until she died that I experienced the tradition of the “nine night” for the first time and that rich culture of remembrance that her generation was so connected to.

Do you feel any direct influences on your work? I thought of August Wilson more than once.
I came to his plays much later on. The more direct influences would be the playwrights I had grown up with, like Debbie Tucker Green and Winsome Pinnock, whose stories as a black British woman I have identified with very strongly: there’s something I think for all of us about these women that we know who have upheld families for generations and generations and wrestled with the extremes and the rawness of life.

So, how does it feel to have entered history books with an achievement—as the first black British woman playwright represented commercially on the West End—that some might argue should have happened in this country years ago? After all, Lorraine Hansberry had A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway 60 years ago?
It’s one of those bittersweet things, isn’t it? It’s something where I can be saying, “Yes, I did that,” and at the same time you think, “it took until now”?

Do you allow yourself to revel in the achievement?
It’s extraordinary. It would be extraordinary anyway, but I find it especially extraordinary because it’s not the path I set out on, so to find myself in this position leaves me slightly flabbergasted that this should be the case.

Going forward, do you see yourself primarily as a writer or an actress?
After this, if I’m not a writer my literary agent is going to kick my butt: I’m definitely getting back to writing!