A little curation can carry a lot. Intricate ideas about identity have rippled through Edinburgh’s International Festival, setting self-assured individuals — Tim Crouch’s cult leader, David Hare’s Peter Gynt (which opened at the National Theatre in London) — against existential questions about our need for origins. Oedipus unravelled as his parentage collapses. The Secret River went back to source.
Red Dust Road nestles neatly in that mix, even if Jackie Kay’s acclaimed memoir sits awkwardly onstage in Dawn Walton’s unimaginative production for National Theatre of Scotland. As a Scottish-Nigerian adopted by a white Scottish couple in the 1960s, Kay made it her life’s quest to track down her biological parents and, with them, her roots. Rather than unfolding chronologically, tracing childhood through to adult life, Red Dust Road skips back and forth in time. Its shape reflects her sense of self: a puzzle that needs piecing back together.
Tanika Gupta’s adaptation holds true to that, but it tends to retread ground as it goes. In conversations with her adoptive parents, her Mormon birth mother and her born-again Nigerian dad, Kay closes in on the circumstances of her conception — but her story feels incomplete without a personal pilgrimage to their ancestral homes, one in the Highlands, another on the Nigerian plains.
Kay’s unusual upbringing offers plenty of insight, pushing past old-school racial epithets to the dislocation of having Africa framed from afar, as a singular, exotic entity. It can, she says, make you a stranger to yourself. Red Dust Road is an attempt at reacquaintance via Burns night ceremonies and political, racial and sexual awakenings. It offers a portrait of an intersectional identity. Beneath its specifics are universal questions about the forces that forge us all: nature or nurture, roots or culture, sexuality or sensibility?
But soulful as Kay’s search for understanding is, there’s too little at stake to stand it up as drama. Luminously played by Sasha Frost, Kay seems so well-adjusted that her quest resembles a research trip more than an existential necessity. Instead of articulate, accurate reflections, Gupta gives us condensed encounters with oversized caricatures. Walton’s direction never finds timbre or tone, merely plonking groups of people on an empty stage.
To August 18, eif.com
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