A daughter’s grief shared: Notes on Grief Manchester International Festival 2021

One of our reporters Gill James has been to watched ‘Notes on Grief’, a performance at the

The play is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful reflection on family, love and loss, directed by Rae McKen.

The set is concrete and realistic. It is Every Lounge in Every City. Yet brighter? The colour of the furniture and accompanying soft furnishings remind us of a rainbow. And this is clearly the home of an intellectual – there is a sizeable collection of books on the shelves.

The notes are about the grief of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her father, the scholar James Nwoye Adichie, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, died suddenly on 10 June 2020. Adichie wrote an essay as a tribute to her father. The essay became a book that was released in May 2021. Rae McKen adapts her words for the stage in this powerful production.

Uche Abuah and Itoya Osagiede in Notes on Grief. Credit: Tristram Kenton (Courtesy of MIT)

The piece is right up to date. Adichie’s grief is heightened because of the pandemic. When will the airports open in Nigeria so that she can get home to mourn properly? Was her father’s death related to Covid or was it just because of kidney failure? Like many modern women, she has to juggle childcare, her own work and concerns about the extended family. The story takes place over two continents.

We are offered glimpses of Adichie’s former life with her father, interspersed with detail of her current pain. She doesn’t give us a chronological account. Rather she drifts between these two settings at random. Notes indeed.

It is not all dark. There are touches of humour. As James Nwoyw Adichie becomes frailer he is obsessive about Sudoku puzzles. He cannot remember the word for a dummy when he helps to look after his young granddaughter; he says he is looking for the “face clock”. When the same granddaughter is sitting on her potty and everyone is waiting for her to perform, he remarks that they would all find it difficult, wouldn’t they, if everybody were watching?

Michelle Asante in Notes on Grief. Credit: Tristram Kenton (Courtesy of MIT)

This is no fourth wall production, despite the verisimilitude of Rosa Maggiora’s set. Adichie addresses her audience throughout in an extended dramatic monologue. There are other elements too: movement, mime, dance, music, film and symbolic gestures.

The cast is extensive yet three actors alone portray all of the characters. Uche Abuah and Itoya Osagiede both play multiple parts and change characters smoothly and convincingly. Osagiede at one point talks to himself as Adichie’s father and brother. Michelle Asante treats us to a sensitive portrayal of Adichie.

This is truly an international production and it gratifying to see the Manchester International Festival taking place, despite the pandemic. All precautions are in place yet they remain unobtrusive.

Notes on Grief is at the Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central, until 17 July. Ninety minutes, no interval. It is also possible to watch it online until 18 July 2021.    

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