Red Dust Road: Jackie Kay’s Search for Black Lesbian Identity

on

Jackie Kay is best known as Scotland’s Poet Makar. She is also something of a Black lesbian icon. Her work explores themes of identity and place with radical honesty; and good humor that is characteristic of her home country.

In 2010 Kay published Red Dust Road – a book about her adoption, growing up Black and Scottish, and connecting with her birth parents as an adult. Tanika Gupta adapted Kay’s memoir for the stage, a production that’s showing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

The play opens when Jackie meets her birth father for the first time. Keen to retrace her roots, she has flown to Nigeria to meet Jonathan. But Jonathan has found God, and spends much of their time together praying. To him, Jackie is a proof of his sinful past. Jonathan is more interested in converting Jackie to Christianity than connecting with her. Conveniently for him, God has advised Jonathan against telling his wife and other children about Jackie. And so she must put together the pieces of her own life story.

Red Dust Road shifts between the past and present, following the structure of Kay’s memoir. Although this non-linear timeline allows for powerful moments of introspection in the book, there are moments when it disrupts the play’s flow. Yet it is clear that scenes from her childhood shape Jackie’s drive to make sense of her own life.

When a young Jackie is subject to racist violence from her classmates and racial stereotyping from her teacher, we understand that she is isolated as a Black child in a white community. As Helen explains her adoption to a tearful Jackie, her sense of belonging falters. In these raw moments, Sasha Frost’s performance as Jackie is outstanding.

Similarly, Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden are a joy to watch as John and Helen Kay. They switch seamlessly between ceilidh dancing and communist politics, bringing two colourful characters to life. The Kays are politically engaged, pointing to Angela Davis as a role model for their young Black daughter and encouraging her to write Nelson Mandela a Christmas card. They are also loving parents, filling their children’s lives with songs and holidays in the Scottish Highlands. Red Dust Road is a testament to the power of family in all of its forms.

Although finding her biological family is a key part of Jackie’s journey, it is through joining a community of Black women that she truly grows into herself. When Jackie travels to London to meet with OWAAD – Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent – it is the first time the audience sees her in a room full of people who look like her. It’s here that Jackie finds Black feminist sisterhood, builds a lesbian social circle, and is released from the burden of having to explain any part of who she is.

The script is seasoned with references to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Jackie’s childhood crush on Angela Davis is lovingly rendered. And real life advice from the late, great Audre Lorde, who encouraged Jackie to take pride in her African and Scottish heritage, is a moment of revelation. Through seeing herself in relation to a community of Black women, Jackie finds the courage to walk the red dust road. This sisterhood culminates when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, like a glamorous fairy godmother, gives Jackie the push she needs to make contact with her biological brother.

Red Dust Road is an extraordinary, affirming story. It has the power to reach audiences across difference. The only person who cried more than I did was the elderly white man beside me, who dabbed genteelly at his eyes with a handkerchief throughout the second act.

Jackie’s story is deeply moving in its own right. That it’s being told during the Edinburgh Festival, an infamously white space, adds to the story’s resonance. It’s a mark of the trail Kay has blazed that a tale of Black lesbian identity is now being celebrated as part of Scottish culture.