Elaine C. Smith is a national treasure. So it was HUGELY embarrassing when I had to text her after the interview we’d done saying I had lost the recording and could we redo it. I was downstairs berating myself for being an idiot, when I heard my phone vibrating… It couldn’t be, could it?? Almost throwing one of the children out of the way I galloped up the stairs…
“Hello daaarlin’, it’s Elaine C. Smith.”
What an absolute legend! Here she is talking to me about the part she plays in the dramatization of Scotland’s Makar Jackie Kay’s wonderful memoir – Red Dust Road.

By Rona Simpson

The story of Red Dust Road sees a young Jackie Kay navigating the challenges of growing up as a mixed-race adopted Scot in 1970s Glasgow. Through her journey to find her birth parents, Jackie discovers that inheritance is about much more than genes: that we are shaped by songs as much as by cells and that what triumphs, ultimately, is love. One reviewer describes the book as a love letter to her adoptive parents – Helen and John Kay. Elaine agrees with this description.

Can you explain to our readers a wee bit about Helen – Jackie Kay’s adoptive mother – who you are playing in Red Dust Road?

I just think she is a remarkable woman, with an amazing amount of compassion and heart and these days when people with her politics are seen as zealots and a bit mad, it’s refreshing to see them presented in such a compassionate and rounded way. [Jackie Kay’s parents were members of the communist party – not such an unusual thing back in the 60s in Glasgow.]
Helen and her husband John had very strong convictions of how the world should be. But very often these [left wing] people are presented as narrow, hard edged, humourless types; Jackie Kay blows that out the water. Helen is such a warm, very funny, intelligent, compassionate, political woman. She’s remarkable, not just to have done what she has done in her life politically, but to have earned that love from Jackie and her brother… I mean, it’s just a wonderful story to give out into the world.

You told me (in the last interview) that you knew the family?

Yes. I knew them from years ago. John and Helen were huge figures in my early career and when I was with 7:84 Theatre Company and ‘Wildcat’ John was on the board. I was very involved with the actor’s trade union and they were people I would see socially all the time, and, of course, that was where I first met Jackie. Everyone would know the kids because there were very few mixed-race children around at the time. Everyone loved them and paid attention to them, whether they liked that or not!
(Through a chance meeting in Edinburgh many years previously, Jackie and Elaine had remembered each other and struck up a friendship.)
I texted Jackie and told her that I had been cast and accepted the role. And she replied saying that the one thing her mum kept asking was “Who’s playing ME?” And I just said, “Well, I hope she’s not disappointed!” [Elaine laughs.]

Are you nervous about playing a character that you know and who means a lot to you?

I think you always want to be respectful. But as an actor what you do is play what’s on the page. If someone else had written it and made Helen and John out to be zealots or ogres or whatever, I’d find that to be much more difficult, but Helen is just a beautiful part. It has been written with such love and care and so accurately. You just want to do a good job, more than anything.

In the book when Jackie goes looking for her biological parents, her (adoptive) mum is excited by the prospect of this ‘investigation’. I’m not sure all parents would react in this way. Many might feel quite threatened. What is it about Helen that allows herself to feel so energised about the prospect?

She was an adventurous and joyful person. I also think Helen had done the work on herself. She was prepared for the day when Jackie would become curious and want to find her birth parents. What Helen tells Jackie over and over is that John and her were the lucky ones. That they were lucky that they had a choice and they chose to have her and her brother. And that sadly her biological parents probably had no choice. Helen, humanitarian to her core, can put herself in other’s shoes. She has huge compassion. And her position with her children, and other people, came always from love.

“I think we outwardly put a much more ‘tolerant’ face on things, but whether we’re there or not… there’s probably work to be done. And that is why I think this play is so powerful.”

Is the Glasgow Jackie grew up in different to the Glasgow of today? Are we better or worse in our treatment of those who look or seem different to us?

I think the messages that are being circulated are much more tolerant and open and that’s wonderful. But I remember that at the height of asylum seekers being brought to Glasgow, they took a mass of people who didn’t really know the culture, who looked different, and put them into one of the poorest areas of the city, amongst people who had very little, and then we start wondering why people are going, “Hang on, why do they have a washing machine… why do they have a flat and ma daughter cannae get a flat?” You’ve got to understand where those feelings of resentments come from too.
What I love now in Glasgow is how many Asian, Afro-Caribbean or mixed-race folk have broad Glasgow accents. Now that is what is wonderful. That makes me smile. That is not a group of people who are segregated. I find it difficult to cope with people telling me that these are groups of people who don’t want to mix. I mean look at what we did. We went into India and ran the place. We weren’t socializing with the local Indian people, were we? I think we need to reflect on our own behaviour a lot of the time.
I think the Glasgow that Jackie grew up in, it was more to do with her being ‘other’, ‘different’. There’s that Scottish thing that always makes me laugh, of my father’s generation, which was to immediately mention you were a different colour. And I think they thought by doing that they werenae racist. “Where are you actually from?” he’d say. And they’d say, “Motherwell.” And he’d say, “Naw, naw… I mean where are your people from?” [Elaine laughs] There are stories like this in the play and I love the way Jackie writes about the racism with humour… but also with a level of understanding.
I’m happy that there are so many different colours of faces around in Scotland now. I think we outwardly put a much more ‘tolerant’ face on things, but whether we’re there or not… there’s probably work to be done. And that is why I think this play is so powerful.

Elaine C. Smith playing Helen Kay alongside Sasha Frost who plays Jackie Kay

Were you already a fan of Jackie’s work before reading the book?

Do you know I did not make the connection until years later that Jackie Kay – the great poet and writer – was the same wee Jackie Kay, Helen and John’s Jackie, that I had known! I had it vaguely in the back of my mind that Jackie had gone onto university, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I discovered it was the same Jackie. Lookin’ at the back of one of her books and I was like, “It’s Jackie!!! OH MY GOD!” And yes, I love her work. Absolutely. I think she writes with such beauty, humour and truth.

Why will audiences love the story of Red Dust Road?

I just think it is beautiful tale. Scottish audiences love a good story. It is a wonderful tale with joy, heartbreak and lots of humour in it and that, for me, is the perfect mix.

Red Dust Road is at the Beacon Arts Centre on Saturday 10th August before it’s taken to The Edinburgh Festival. To book for the 10th August showing go to beaconartscentre.co.uk

Elaine C. Smith – Interview