An immigrant family’s grief and joy meet in ‘Nine Night’ at Round House Theatre

British Playwright Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night captures the grief and joy surrounding the Caribbean funeral tradition known as Nine Night. Round House Theatre’s production explores this unique cultural excursion through the eyes of Lorraine, who presides over her mother’s funeral with her Jamaican-British family in a journey that will leave the audience both emotionally drained and fascinated.

On the day that Great Britain laid their Queen to eternal rest after 11 days of pageantry, pomp, and circumstances, Round House explored another funerary tradition set in Britain with the American premiere of the hit London play, which highlights the working-class Jamaican immigrant experience of matriarchal celebration and reverence.

Originally scheduled for the 2021/22 season and postponed due to COVID, the production now runs through October 9, 2022. Gordon’s debut play, Nine Night was a popular triumph in its 2018 National Theatre premiere in London and subsequent West End run. It artfully explores the tensions of inhabiting two cultures, the inescapable bonds of family, and the many layers of grief, shame, and ultimate spiritual liberation through the exhausted eyes of Lorraine, played to raw emotional perfection by Lilian Oben. Lorraine is the faithful and conflicted caretaker of her terminally ill matriarch mother who contends with the extended family descending on her at her most vulnerable moment.

Lilian Oben (Lorraine) in ‘Nine Night.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Director Timothy Douglas highlights the layers of stress and distraction placed on Lorraine as one by one we are introduced to the other members of the sometimes-dysfunctional extended family. Lorraine dutifully accepts her fate and plans her mother Gloria’s final arrangements with Gloria’s larger-than-life image hovering over the stage.

Early family arrivals include first cousins Vince, played by Doug Brown, who previously collaborated with Director Timothy Douglas on Two Trains Running at Round House, and his opinionated wife Maggie played by Kim Bey, a Howard BFA with previous creds in Sleep Deprivation Chamber in Round House’s Adrienne Kennedy festival.

Lorraine’s impressionable young daughter, Anita, played by Kaitlyn Boyer, brings a fresh New Age perspective to the family dynamic as she shares talks with her grandmother about cremation, which Maggie quickly quashes: “We don’t cook our people!”

Doug Brown (Vince), Kim Bey (Maggie), Avery Glymph (Robert), Joy DeMichelle (Trudy), Katie deBuys (Sophie), Kaitlyn Boyer (Anita), and Lilian Oben (Lorraine) in ‘Nine Night.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The sibling who stirs the family pot the most is Lorraine’s younger brother Robert, played by Avery Glymph, and his browbeaten wife Sophie, played by Katie deBuys, whose previous Round House credits include Small Mouth Sounds. Robert is a craven would-be entrepreneur who brazenly propositions Vince into investing in his dreams; and when his plans fall apart, he selfishly pressures Lorraine into considering selling their mother’s house as final funeral arrangements are being made.

The final nail in the matriarch’s coffin is delivered by first-born daughter Trudy, who was abandoned by her mother and left behind in Jamaica to fend for herself but has beaten the odds and transformed herself into a successful businesswoman. Played to an authentic and vibrant crescendo by Joy DeMichelle, Trudy was not expected to obtain a visa in time and was scratched from the program, but Cousin Maggie knew better.

Trudy brings a treasure trove of rum, authentic Jamaican festival costumes, and fresh herbs and condiments to top off the Nine Night celebration. She also brings the demon spirit of shame, and as she teams with Maggie to rearrange the furniture and flip Gloria’s mattress in a last-ditch effort to release her spirit, Lorraine fights her in a final climactic scene that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats.

Kudos to Ryan Rillette, the artistic director of Round House, and his creative team for delivering every final detail down to the catered Jamaican patties, coconut bread, rice and peas, and Red Stripe Lager served at the opening night reception.* Together the playwright Natasha Gordon and the director Timothy Douglas have given Round House a gorgeous production and a beautiful way to start off the season.

* And kudos for the themed reception offerings to Frank Manganello Jr., food and beverage manager of Round House Theatre’s Fourth Wall Bar & Café. 

Running Time: Approximately one hour 45 minutes with no intermission.

Nine Night plays through October 9, 2022, at Round House Theater – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($39–$74 plus fees), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn about Round House’s special discounts here.)

The Nine Night program is available online here.

COVID Safety: Round House continues to require that patrons wear face masks while attending performances. Learn more about health and safety at Round House here.