Poet and author Jackie Kay’s acclaimed autobiography, Red Dust Road, will be brought to life on stage at Manchester’s HOME arts centre in September. Marketing Manchester’s Manchester Content Curator Simon Donohue spoke to the Scottish national poet about the play.

Photo credit: Denise Else

With a warm Glaswegian lilt and tartan tweed jacket, Scotland’s national poet might seem a long way from home in the comfort of Manchester’s HOME arthouse cinema and theatre complex.
However, Jackie Kay MBE has lived in Manchester for almost 20 years and is excited that HOME is one of the first places people that will get see the hotly-anticipated stage adaptation of her acclaimed 2010 autobiography, Red Dust Road.

Named Scottish Book Of the year in 2011, Red Dust Road charts Jackie’s life as a mixed-race child adopted by a white couple in an age that was arguably less enlightened.

Difficult meetings with her birth parents – a white Scottish woman and Nigerian professor - provided the catalyst for a memoir she hadn’t anticipated writing until she was much older.

But the book is also a celebration of a happy childhood with her adoptive parents Helen and John Kay, and the role writing has played in her life since she was a small child.

Adapted by Tanika Gupta (winner of the 2018 James Tait Black Prize for Drama), and directed by Dawn Walton (Founder and Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre), the stage version of Red Dust Road is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, where Jackie is a patron.

It’s significant that it will be seen first in Edinburgh, the nearest city to Nairn, where Jackie’s birth mother came from; then Stirling, where Jackie was a student; before “coming home to HOME” in Manchester for a 10-day run.

“It feels like each step on Red Dust Road’s journey is also a chapter in my life and each place has a special significance to me,” explains Jackie, who became Scotland’s national poet – or Scots Makar – in 2016.

“I live in Manchester now – in Chorlton – and have done for nearly 20 years. I’m currently Chancellor at the University of Salford, which I love, and the students’ lives are very important to me.

“And what’s possible in a life, what can happen on life’s journey, what kind of circles your life makes, the unexpected chapters your life creates, these are all the things which interest me.”

Red Dust Road was drawn from memory and student diaries, with the only contemporaneous writing taking place immediately after meeting her birth father.

“When I went to Nigeria and met my birth father I found myself writing right away just because I wanted to remember it all,” she explains.

“I didn’t at that point think it would be a book. But it was really meeting him that made me think that my life was a story that was happening to me. He felt like a character who was larger than life and when you encounter characters who are larger than life and in your own life, then you write to contain that.

“Red Dust Road allowed me to make sense of what was quite a traumatic and puzzling and difficult experience.”

Jackie first fell in love with writing as a child in Scotland, discovering a sanctuary of sorts from the bigotry and ignorance she sometimes faced.

That led to literary recognition in 1991 with The Adoption Papers, a poetry book examining transracial adoption.

“My imagination was always pretty strong. Even as a kid, when people would call me names, I would run off and write revenge poems and I’d find that inside the sanctuary of my own imagination I was quite strong,” she explains.

“There’s also something quite pure about the imagination; that you can be someone else, make something up.

“Writing gave me a chance to take charge and that’s what’s interesting about having Red Dust Road as a piece of theatre because it’s not me taking charge at all. It’s other people.”

Jackie describes herself as an advisor to the stage version of Red Dust Road and has opted not to get too heavily involved.

“I feel that once you create something, it’s important to let other people in to do their jobs properly,” she adds.

“It’s a mystery to me because I don’t know who’s going to be playing me yet and I don’t know who’s going to be playing my mum. My mum keeps saying, ‘Who’s going to be playing me?’. She’s obsessed with it, she’s now 88 and quite excited about having this other life in the theatre.”

Personally, she isn’t too concerned about her own portrayal. It matters more how the stage-show team capture the “spirit of her story… with its contradictions and multiplicity”.

“I think it needs to bubble with its own life and that means it’s going to have change quite dramatically from the original,” she says.

Jackie’s previous works have also featured aspects of Manchester as inspiration, including a Manchester International Festival commission. She is now writing her next novel, which will continue the love affair with Manchester.

She is also proud that her son, Matt Kay, a talented Mancunian filmmaker, won the prize for Best British Film at the Manchester Film Festival with Little Miss Sumo, going on to dine with Robert De Niro when the film played at his Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

I ask what she likes best about Manchester and tolerance and diversity are two of the traits she reels off from a list of positives that could well have been written by Marketing Manchester.

Yet sadly, she feels that society in general has taken a step backwards in terms of acceptance in recent years.

“I think as a society, in lots of ways we’ve changed enormously in the course of our lives,” she says.

“There have been all sorts of changes in attitudes to gay people, to trans people, to gay marriage, which would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.

“But I think we also live in a society that all sorts of things from the sixties and seventies have come back – some negative things. There have been a lot more racist attacks on people in this country, there are a lot more people singled out for being different. I think we had got to a stage of thinking we were living in a multi-cultural society that was at ease with itself and yet unfortunately, some of the stuff that has been provoked by Brexit, some of that really hard work, is in danger.

“I’m not sure that, right now, that some of my experiences would have been that different than they would have even four years ago.”

However, she’s optimistic that her own life story can continue to help.

She adds: “I hope that when Red Dust Road gets shown as a theatre piece, it will be a great celebration of difference and will be empowering for people to see, helping them to feel less alone or giving them hope, courage or excitement or any of the things that good theatre can do.”

Red Dust Road is at HOME, Manchester, from Wednesday 11 September 11 to Saturday 21 September. You can book tickets here.