“I’ve got my children glued to the TV,” says Hannah Lavery cheerily as she talks about The Drift, her autobiographical solo play she performs in a short cross-country tour next month. It’s September school holiday, and, while one child is on a playdate, the other two are lost in a world of X-Box. They may be quiet, but they’re comfortably within reach.
This wasn’t always the case for Lavery when she was their age, at least not in terms of her dad, who left her and her mother when she was three. This became the starting point for The Drift, an angry and unflinchingly honest elegy to her absent father, who died in 2017, leaving behind a considerable weight of familial baggage.
“It’s been a strange journey,” says Lavery. “I wrote the play as a series of poems, and I was running this tiny fringe venue on the Royal Mile in the waiting room of my step-father’s shop. There was an empty slot in the afternoon, and I thought I’d do it once and put it away. I was brave and quite vulnerable, and I don’t think if I’d been asked to write it by the National Theatre of Scotland, who I’m doing it with now, I would have been.
“It’s about grief, and it opened things up about my relationship with my father, and his relationship with Scotland. There’s this whole idea as well of having an absent father. How do you grieve for someone you’ve never had a hold of, and who, because he was black in Scotland, had the problems that he did? But the play is rooted in grief, and everything else came later. I didn’t set out to write a play about Scotland and its relationship with people of colour.”
In the audience for The Drift was Jenny Lindsay, poet, performer and co-founder of spoken-word night, Flint and Pitch. Lindsay mentored Lavery, who performed a version of The Drift at Flint and Pitch, developing the play further as part of the Workers Theatre Megaphone Residency and later through the NTS’ Just Start Here Festival and Engine Room programme. A work in progress was seen at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow last year during Black History Month, with director Eve Nicol returning to oversee this full production.
With a Higher in acting and performance pre-dating her degree in English and Education with Post-Colonial Literature and a diploma in Secondary English Teaching, Lavery is no stranger to theatre. She penned two short works for the Traverse Theatre’s Words, Words, Words night, and wrote another to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Lyceum Youth Theatre. At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, there was a work in progress of Lament for Sheku Bayoh, a response to the death in 2015 of a thirty-one-year-old man while in police custody in Kirkcaldy.
“For me,” says Lavery, “theatre was originally spoken-word, and only later did it become something else. I suppose for a lot of people, spoken-word is about authenticity, and being able to tell your own story so there’s a truth in it. I think the production of The Drift still has that essence, and even though there’s a director and a designer, there’s still a rawness to it, but the theatrical quality that’s there now elevates it.
“I’ve done extracts of The Drift at Neu! Reekie!, getting up after someone else, and that’s been wonderful, but this is different. It’s a strange thing getting up and telling a personal story, but it’s also a piece of art. It’s crafted. It’s not me getting up and having a breakdown.”
Lavery remembers writing her first poem aged twelve.
“It took me a long time to know you could do that,” she says. “I never really showed my work to anyone till I was in my thirties. I’d left school when I was sixteen, then finished university in my twenties and went into spoken-word because it felt the most accessible.”
Inbetween writing, Lavery works full time at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, and her poems from The Drift were recently published as Finding Sea Glass, a pamphlet published by Stewed Rhubarb Press. This too was in part a reclaiming of her own history, as well as acknowledging how the racism her father faced in Scotland hasn’t gone away.
“I think there’s a denial about Scotland’s racism,” she says, “and there’s a kind of gaslighting that comes when people tell you that your experience of Scotland is wrong. I love this country, but you have to be critical of it and challenge this denial of people of colour’s experience. Doing my research for the play I saw the amount Scotland was involved in slavery and colonialism, and not acknowledging that is wilfully ignorant and insulting.
“I’m mixed race, so I’m a product of whiteness as much as blackness. I’m also Scottish, and I’m a Yes voter, but I’ve become increasingly aware of how dangerous Scottish exceptionalism is. What does it mean to say we’re better than those over the border? Instead of that, we have to start listening to the things people are saying.
“I didn’t do the play to make a political point, It’s about my family history, and it’s about how racism plays out, and how painful it is when you’re told you don’t belong. It’s also a Scottish play about a daughter who’s lost her father, who just happens to be of colour. It’s also a play about belonging. When you lose a parent, your world shifts. The play is about sharing that.”
“I should probably put my children out in the sunshine,” she says.
The Drift, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, October 2; Mull Theatre, Druimfin, Tobermory, October 4; Heart of Hawick, October 8; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 10; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 11-12.
The Herald, September 21st 2019.