Good People playwright David Lindsay-Abaire spoke with Dramaturg Charles Haugland about the South Boston he grew up in and the changes that the neighborhood has experienced.
Charles Haugland: I’ve heard that you waited to write about your home neighborhood, South Boston. How did you know it was time?
David Lindsay-Abaire: A few things came together. I had wanted to mature as a person and as a writer. If I was going to write about Southie, I wanted to do it responsibly and respectfully. These are my friends and relatives after all. But in terms of “why now,” I kept hearing about English playwrights who were writing about class, and people kept asking why American playwrights don’t. I knew I didn’t want to write some didactic play, preaching about class in America. But then I went back to Southie and thought, “If I write about the old neighborhood, the subject of class will inevitably bubble to the surface because it's so present to the community." Also, the economy is in a really crappy place right now, and I thought if I was going to write about class, this was the time to do it. What's most interesting to me is that, before I wrote the play, I thought, “Why would you do this? It’s going to be irrelevant in three years.” But the play has actually become more relevant and hums in a way that it didn’t when it was on Broadway two years ago.
I’ve found there are several different ideas of South Boston, depending on whom you ask.
And I think it gets even harder to define every day because the neighborhood is so much in transition. The play hints at the changes in the neighborhood, but mostly what’s onstage is the version of South Boston that I remember, and that I know still exists in at least pockets of the neighborhood. I grew up in the Lower End, which was mostly comprised of regular, working class people who were trying to make good lives for themselves and for their families. They were salt of the earth people, and lots of us were struggling, but no one I knew really fit the Southie stereotypes that people seem to have. Part of writing the play was my responding to those stereotypes —most of which are thirty years old and weren’t even accurate thirty years ago.
The racist, the low-life, the Irish drunk, the drug addict, the welfare mom, the mobster working for Whitey Bulger. Some of those stereotypes come from the movies and books about Southie, some of them come from the front page of The [Boston] Globe. The forced busing era in particular gave people a really bad picture of the neighborhood; there was some truth in the stories, but what was really going on in the neighborhood was much more complicated than “a bunch of racists are throwing bottles at kids in buses.”
Did you live through the busing era?
I was four when it happened, so I was much more aware of the repercussions and people’s takeaways from it. There are also all these movies that have come out — some of them are about Southie, some of them I found people have just assumed are about Southie, like The Fighter in Lowell or The Town in Charlestown. People tend to lump urban Boston stories together. I wanted to write a different story about South Boston.
One of the things you hear about Southie that I find the play illustrates is that it is a place that is very protective of its own.
I’m obviously not a historian, but I was always told that South Boston came to be when the Irish immigrants came and were shunned in most quarters because they were thought to be filthy, dirty lowlifes, and nobody wanted them in their neighborhood. So, [the immigrants] were like, “What about this little patch of mud,” and they went over to this uninhabited isthmus and they formed a community. Because they were so ostracized, they turned to each other for comfort and protection, and became a segregated community in every sense of the word. They took care of each other, and learned to be suspicious of outsiders, often for good reasons. And it stayed that way for generations. So, yes, it was a wonderfully tight-knit and protective community, but unfortunately that mindset can also have its ugly side.
What do you still recognize about the neighborhood when you go back?
Not as much as I’d like, sadly. There are still a few people I grew up with, a few families, but so many have moved away. The Boys Club is still there, Sully’s is still on Castle Island, but so many churches and schools have become condos. The neighborhood has become much more gentrified and diverse — I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just not the Southie I grew up in. Last time I was there, I walked down West Broadway and saw these quaint cafes and artisinal chocolatiers. I thought, what the hell is this? Even the new bars that claim to be “authentic Irish pubs” have Thai chicken salads on the menu. Don't get me wrong, I love a Thai chicken salad, but despite the claims of authenticity, big parts of the neighborhood feel like they’ve been bought out by a franchise that caters to a different clientele.
I've run into people from South Boston that saw the show in New York. Have you heard reactions from the neighborhood?
Yes, I was surprised how many folks from Southie came to see it. Generally, people only seek out the writer if they have something nice to say. I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of my neighbors had wanted to tell me off, but that didn’t happen. A couple people said, “Forget the clam rolls at Sully’s. It was the hot dogs! Why didn’t you say hot dogs?” Other than preferences, people felt like it was truthful, funny, and accurate, and they were happy it wasn’t about drugs and Whitey Bulger.
Are there things you still recognize about yourself where you say, “That’s Southie?”
All the time. I will always be the working class kid. I have a deep respect for hard work and people trying to make their lives better. I hope it informs my own work ethic. My sense of humor is very Southie — dark and inappropriate. Laughter in the face of hardship, that’s still very present. I also have a little bit of a temper. I think most people consider me pretty mild-mannered. But I don’t suffer fools gladly. Not too many people from Southie do.