No one may be more excited than actor Lilian Oben about the upcoming opening this month of Nine Night, the U.S. premiere of a production at Round House Theatre in Bethesda that was originally scheduled to run last season.
As the world was fighting to stay safe from the coronavirus in the midst of the pandemic, Oben was battling Rocky Mountain spotted fever while trying to land a role in Nine Night during the summer of 2020.
“I had just done a commercial in the wilds of New Jersey and contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever and was like literally on death’s door, about to die,” Oben recently recalled about her experience with the rare bacterial infection that is spread by a bite from an infected tick and can be fatal if untreated. “Nine Night came up and I was in the throes of fever. Afterwards, I found out that if you don’t get treated for this thing you can die but at the time I didn’t know it. So I get the audition for Nine Night and I’m sick as a dog but I’m reading it and thinking this is my life.”
Nine Night, written by Natasha Gordon, depicts a Jamaican family coming together following the death of Gloria, the family matriarch, for the traditional Nine Night Wake, a multi-day celebration.
Oben was able to complete her audition and landed the role of Lorraine, one of Gloria’s children. She said the role embodied her life as if it were written for her: she plays the oldest sibling, living in London for a few years and gaining familiarity of Jamaican culture through a previous relationship.
“The play, it was like my life – I just got it,” she said. “I got the world, I saw the world, I knew the world intimately. So in the middle of fever, I was just thinking ‘how can I get myself to D.C., feverish and broken up in Rocky Mountain highs as I am, to audition for this part?’ ”
The theater kicks off its 45th season Sept. 14 with the U.S. debut of Nine Night, which has only been performed in the United Kingdom. The show runs through Oct. 9. The production was originally planned for last season but was pushed back by several months.
Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette said cast members kept getting sick during the wave of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, leading to the postponement of the show to this season.
“Some of these plays have been in the pipeline for a while as a result of COVID,” Rilette said. “Nine Night, which is starting this season, was originally scheduled to run in January of this year. At that point, last season, we were still at the point where when someone tested positive for COVID, they were basically out for 10 days.”
In addition to Nine Night, The Tempest, written by William Shakespeare, is another production that was pushed back due to the pandemic and now there is much excitement for both shows to finally make an appearance on stage at the theater, according to Rilette. The season will also include four other productions: On the Far End, written by Mary Kathryn Nagle; Fela!, music and lyrics written by Fela Kuti and book by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis; August Wilson’s Radio Golf; and Jennifer, Who Is Leaving, written and directed by Morgan Gould.
As well as experiencing show delays because of the pandemic, Rilette said there were also dips in audience attendance last season, which he hopes will improve throughout this season.
“The audiences were super small, and they grew for the second show and they were growing for Nine Night and then Omicron hit and everything went back down again,” he said. “The hope is that as people are in the habit of coming into the theater live, that is going to change and we’ll be able to get back to our pre-COVID levels sooner.”
Timothy Douglas, the director of Nine Night, started working with Round House in 2004. While directing the production’s U.S. premiere, Douglas said his favorite part was working with the ensemble of actors.
“They have to, over a course of just a couple of weeks, convey that this is a tight-knit family,” he said. “What’s beautiful about the process of putting a show together, when the stars are aligned, is that the individual actors gathered are open to the experience and this particular group of actors are so lovely individually. To be cliché, we have become a family, on stage and off and that has been the best part of it.”
Douglas said he hopes the audience is also able to connect with the show.
“I hope they enjoy it, of course, and that they see themselves in it, that even though it’s specifically culturally Jamaican and UK Jamaican, in the end it is a family and anyone can relate to that,” he said.
Oben, who now lives in New York, is excited to return for the production and for the play to finally get its debut after the delay due to the pandemic.
“I’m personally grateful that we get a chance to bring the production to audiences and I’m excited to see how it hits nine months later,” she said. “As a U.S. premiere of the show, I think we’re just glad that we still get that opportunity to do that.”
For a full list of productions in the upcoming season and more information, visit the theater’s website.