Jackie Kay was in John Lewis when she was made aware how much people related to her memoir, Red Dust Road.
“I bumped into this man,” says Scotland’s Makar on the eve of the National Theatre of Scotland and HOME Manchester’s new staging of her book as part of Edinburgh International Festival’s You Are Here strand. “He came up and said, ‘excuse me for interrupting your private life,’ and he said he’d read Red Dust Road and loved it, and would I mind writing a new chapter for Christmas telling him how everyone got on.”
Kay’s book charts the poet and novelist’s twenty-year search for her Nigerian father and Scottish mother after being adopted by Glasgow communists and growing up in Bishopbriggs as a mixed-race child in a largely white community. When it was first published in 2010, the effect of such an emotional story tapped into a universal sense of recognition epitomised by the likes of the man in John Lewis.
“It’s been kind of surreal,” Kay says of watching the play come together. “Seeing people playing me and my mum onstage, it’s like life imitating art imitating life. It’s interesting as well going back to it, and how the story seems to be in this constant present, and doesn’t feel that far away.”
Rather than Kay adapting the book herself, the stage version has been penned by acclaimed playwright Tanika Gupta, with director Dawn Walton completing the trinity.
“I was entranced,” Gupta says of her experience reading Red Dust Road. “It’s not a linear boo. It’s a collection of memories that go back and forth, and is quite lyrical. It’s been a difficult one to adapt. I initially tried to do a version that started at the beginning and finished at the end, but it felt really clunky, so I went back to the book, which starts at the end.
“I’ve also used some of Jackie’s poems from her book, The Adoption Papers, in the script. They’re so beautiful, and although we haven’t used a narrator in the play, the poems are sort of used in that role as well, so it celebrates her and her work as well as her life.
“I think Jackie is an icon of black feminism in this country, and, for me, the play’s not just about Jackie’s relationship with her parents. It’s also about her development as a black woman feminist in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I’m a firm believer that a play has to say something about the world we’re living in now, and right now it feels like the world’s gone crazy. All those racist chants we had to put up with when we were growing up, they’re all coming back, and what was happening then feels quite similar to some of the things going on now.
“But Jackie should be celebrated. She’s known all over the world, but quite a few Scottish people don’t know she’s their Makar, and I think it’s so important that a black woman is the Makar.”
Kay herself retains a sense of wonder at the life her book has already had.
“I couldn’t have foreseen the level of interest in the book,’ she says. “People take it as their own, and it becomes very personal to them. That, I think, is the most satisfying part of writing. Everyone in the book becomes characters on your behalf, and I think it’s important to let the reader in, so they can come into the book and see out the window. I like to see what I write as an open house, leave the key under the mat, and let people see what they see.”
Red Dust Road, Edinburgh International Theatre at The Lyceum, August 14,15, 17, 18, 7.30pm-9.45pm; August 15, 17, 2.30pm-4.45pm; August 16, 1pm-3.15pm.
The Herald, August 14th 2019