Rae McKen directs the world premiere of Notes On Grief at MIF21, a theatre adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated New Yorker essay about the death of her father during the pandemic. Dominic Cadogan meets her.
By now, we’re all intimately familiar with the difficulties of navigating the pandemic and the varying impacts it has had on so many people’s lives. From restrictions of our freedoms, to the extended closure of recreational spaces and the devastating loss of life, we’ve all been touched by it in different ways.
For director Rae McKen, it has meant that she hasn’t been able to experience her first joy, theatre, and the camaraderie shared by an audience visiting a play or musical – something she’s been doing habitually since she was a teenager. 'I've not been inside a theatre for 15 months, which I haven’t done for the rest of my life, it’s unheard of and I think it’s been pretty devastating for a lot of people,' she says.
While she has continued teaching at the Brit School and LAMDA throughout lockdown, the industry’s forced shutdown stopped her from directing, something she has known she wanted to do from a young age. 'I randomly started going to the theatre when I was 14 and my sister was studying Much Ado About Nothing for her A-Levels. My mother took us to see it and I absolutely adored it and ended up seeing it five times,' McKen explains. 'I instantly fell in love with theatre and knew straight away that I didn’t want to act, so I thought: ‘What else can I do?’ and I decided I would be a director.'
With a slew of Shakespeare’s greats under her belt – including Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night – at the heart of McKen’s work is a dedication to diversity and inclusion, spurred by her experiences as a British-Jamaican woman growing up in a predominantly white area. 'I was brought up in Guildford, so I was used to being the odd one and I’d happily walk into a theatre space and ignore that fact that everyone around me was white, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen how young people around me have reacted badly to being in these environments – it shrinks them as humans,' she says.
McKen recalls being met with resistance when bringing up diversity (or lack thereof) in theatre. 'I just don’t understand why people have an issue with creating stories – whether it’s the past, present, or future – that are fully inclusive of the world we currently live in,' she says. As a director she is steadfast in her mission to bring diverse casts to the plays she works on. 'I was working on casting for another play and I put one of our Black actresses as Queen Elizabeth,' she recalls. 'She was wearing this amazing gold dress and there was a Black family in the front row with kids who were wide eyed and loved it and it reminded me of why it’s so important.'
While Notes On Grief is inherently diverse, race isn’t the topic that drives it; it instead focuses on the universal and painfully relevant subject of grief. Inspired by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's celebrated New Yorker essay of the same name, written after the passing of her father last year, Notes On Grief is a powerful and timely exploration of a family’s experience of bereavement and grief.
'If you tell one person’s story clearly enough, then it’s universal'
'Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a very good writer and her use of language is superb,' McKen says. 'The way she writes encapsulates the less tangible aspects of grieving and it feels so interesting to explore that during the pandemic when a lot more people are being touched by grief at a similar time.'
A complex subject to navigate and one unique to each person who experiences it, the director hopes that Notes On Grief will act as a comfort for people who have encountered grief previously and a guide for those who haven’t. 'There are lots of learnings I think people will take away from it,' she says. 'There is a comfort in knowing that you’re not going mad and that everything you experience when going through grief is normal, even when you feel alone. I hope people recognise that from Notes On Grief and it resonates in years to come.'
More widely, McKen hopes that the project will show theatregoers and other directors alike that diverse storytelling can be accessible to all audiences. 'If you tell one person’s story clearly enough, then it’s universal,' she says. 'So, I hope that audiences realise that they can watch a play that is entirely told by people of colour, about people of colour, and totally relate to it, no matter what their background is.'
'For too long, marginalised people have gotten used to finding our connections within stories told by the western majority, so it’s nice to turn it around and have them watch us and connect with us,' she continues. 'That’s the only way to change things in the future, by making everyone aware that it works both ways, because, fundamentally, we are all human and we all experience the same set of emotions.'
Dominic Cadogan is a writer based in London.