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Notes on Grief

Written by Chimamanda Adichie

Manchester Central, 2021

Review by Shamshad Khan

Deft, intelligent and warm, Chimamanda Adichie’s essay ‘Notes on grief’, written shortly after the death of her father, is as well-crafted and conscious a narrative as one might expect from the author of Half of a Yellow Sun. It is an honest and emotive piece of writing, based on Adichie’s family and personal responses to the death of their renowned father, James Nwoye Adichie (1932-2020), who died in Nigeria whilst Adichie herself was in the USA.

This dramatised version, commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival (MIF), is very faithful to the text. Michelle Asante, who performs the narrator role, is confident and authoritative; an assured presence, she holds the stage with ease. As audience members we easily identify with her and with the universal experience of grief through the particular Nigerian experience and culture. We recognise the helplessness of being unable to be with family because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are invited into intimate exchanges to reflect on what it is to love, be loved and grieve the loss of a beloved one.

The characterisation through dialogue and choreographed movement is focused and augments the narration that is told so empathically by Asante. Seamless direction by Rae McKen is embedded in her ‘highly collaborative process’ with the creative team. The movement choreography is expertly incorporated and balanced with music, video and spoken text.

The costumes are dignified, subtle and unobtrusive, signalling a certain middle-class privilege, reflecting Nigerian, Eastern and Western influences. The set welcomes us into their home; a screen at the back used to display Zoom call footage and family flashbacks.

The actors deliver multiple roles with clarity; Uche Abuah as Adichie at different ages and as her young daughter is charming and joyous; Itoya Osagiede switches convincingly between father and brother; both actors play additional roles that give relief in their humorous depictions of overly officious announcers or overbearing family friends and relatives. Refreshingly, the Nigerian accent is not caricatured, even when depicting the officials; the humour coming from the text, situation and relationships. We are treated to a rich musicality and variety of languages: lightly drummed Igbo, brassy English and, for one night only, flesh and blood British Sign Language (BSL).

I was well rewarded for having chosen to attend the show with English BSL interpretation by Jacqui Beckford. Her input was compelling, evocative and attuned. Her expressions and gestures enhanced my appreciation of the narrative, imagery and emotional landscapes of the piece. Even placed as she was, stage left of the actors, the BSL interpreter’s presence permeated the show. We were transfixed by a time-stopping moment when all four bodies on stage, actors and interpreter, were in one synchronised shape of lost love. Powerful and simple.

There are plans for future touring of the show and a desire for the BSL interpreter to be more organically and fully integrated into the show. I would love to see just how integrated a production this can become; celebrating creative and accessible values that make theatre more exciting and richer for all of us, whether we are deaf, hearing, fluent users of BSL or not.

The play is affirming of life, women and relationships. The tender, loving relationship between Adichie’s younger self and her father is playful and warm. We witness the nature of one who has been raised on a ‘love-drenched litany of affirmations’ in the easy confidence depicted by the narrator and the young Adichie. We appreciate the power of Igbo words of encouragement lavished on her by her father: Ome Ife Ukwu (‘The one who does great things’), or Nwoke Neli which is translated as ‘the equivalent of many men’. We come to understand the roots of the writer of the TED talk (later published as an essay) titled ‘We should all be feminists’. 

The show is realistic and raw, but not gratuitous in its portrayal of grief, drenched as it is in love. At the end Adichie is only just beginning to acknowledge her father in the past tense. Like our first experience of falling in love, in our first real experience of grief we are taken beyond familiar parameters, totally disorientated and overwhelmed; it is an experience that shapes and changes our emotional horizons forever, and may never be surpassed.

‘Notes on Grief’ helps us to recognise the nature of loving relationships and the depth of associated loss. It does not prescribe the correct rituals for mourning; it does not offer answers on how to console ourselves or others. It suggests instead that it may or may not be enough to simply say Ndo: ‘sorry for your loss’. Next time we are lost for words when someone dies or is grieving, we might instead run the edge of our palm in a line from our foreheads towards our hearts, in the sign for grief.