From Student Matinee to Huntington Playwriting Fellow: Kirsten Greenidge

by:  Kirsten Greenidge at 03/03/2010

Recently, we completed a grant for the NEA New Play Development Program seeking development support of Kirsten Greenidge's wonderful play, The Luck of the Irish. As part of the process, she wrote the following statement and it was so moving that I wanted to share with all of you.— Lisa Timmel, Director of New Work

I decided to become a playwright after seeing August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I was twelve. I sat in the balcony of the Huntington during that school matinee performance, and looked down onto that proscenium stage and saw, for the first time, an African American story that simultaneously challenged and affirmed what I knew about how black people fit into the cultural landscape that is America. Previously I had wanted to write novels. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. In the fog that hung over my junior high school years I had somehow concluded that in order to be published a story could not include only black people unless they were southern (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) or had been hurt and damaged in some way (To Kill A Mockingbird), or existed as a joke (I had fallen utterly in love with Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire by this point but couldn’t forgive or forget Blanche Dubois telling her sister they could play at one of them being “the boy” when Blanche explains she’ll pour the drinks).

But these notions of how black characters fit into American literature melted quickly into the gilt that surrounds the Huntington’s main stage when I sat in that theatre on a gray and rainy day quite some time ago. For the first time in my life I saw black people on stage who were there to tell stories. Complicated stories. Rhythmical stories. Stories that were at once proud, true, painful, and funny. The dilemma, to me, lay in how I could, like August Wilson, write these stories, too. Despite the slightly feminist upbringing I received from my mother and the overtly feminist environment I experienced at my Quaker-slash-hippie grammar and middle school, I just didn’t believe girls could really be writers. I didn’t think black people really could either. Like the real kind, the kind that people took seriously, not the kind that sold their own books on subway platforms along with incense and sunglasses. So it took six years and a college class by an actual living breathing female writer to reverse my thinking. What I learned in Darrah Cloud’s class at Wesleyan (I took it as many times as I could) was that I am capable of fulfilling the ideas I had experienced in that school matinee in seventh grade. I am capable of creating black characters in a landscape that does not expect them but certainly should contain them. I am capable of creating characters who do not need to be southern, or conventionally hurt and damaged, or merely an afterthought of a joke. I love the process of writing for the stage (the research and the drafting and the polishing and the opening night wine receptions with kinds of cheese I don’t keep for myself in my own house). And truth be told I might be able to easily give it up if I needed to, say, get an office job. With benefits. Since I have two kids now. And while there are days, sometimes weeks, where I am tempted, my mind often reels back to that matinee in the late eighties, and I just can’t. While each play I have written may not be perfect—in fact, they may be far from that—I can be honest and say that I know each play I have written places characters into the Amlit landscape that need to be there, that call to be there, that deserve to be there.

It’s fitting that one of my current works in progress The Luck of the Irish has found itself at the Huntington. For although it is inherently a Boston story, it is also, in my thinking, cousin (perhaps distant, but that’s okay as long as I’m at the dinner table somehow) to the works Mr. Wilson was able to develop here decades ago. When I set out to write The Luck of the Irish, I had two objectives: to collect the original commission check for it (from South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, California) quickly so I would not have to take any teaching jobs so soon after having my daughter, and to write a play about my grandmother, who had died about a month before. The more I wrote, the more “Boston” the play became, for the Boston I grew up in, and the Boston my parents and grandparents talked of, was not a melting pot. Or, if it was, someone long ago neglected to turn on the stove. Who your parents were predicted who you could become. Where you and these parents all lived predicted what other places you were or were not allowed to call home, or, in some instances, visit. I remember one St. Patrick’s Day asking my mother when were we heading to the parade “in Boston” — not knowing we were the only group of people decidedly not considered Irish for the day and also not knowing what “Southie” meant — and she looked at me with both horror and sadness. “We can’t go there”, was all she said. In many ways The Luck of the Irish explores why, so far up above the Mason Dixon line, this might be. And so I began to explore not only my grandparents’ move from the black South End to the suburbs, but also the ambiguousness of being “other” in a town that your people have called home for over half a century. As I raise my daughter (and now son, too), it’s becoming clear to me that the racially stratified world I was taught about from my family has changed. So the play also explores this as well: how do we live as neighbors when we may not have been taught how or expected to do so openly and with the compassion and understanding good neighbors are supposed to exercise.

What excites me about working with the Huntington is that I will get a chance to workshop a play that is self consciously set in Boston in a theatre that makes its home in Boston. It is not work that is new to me, as I have worked on pieces with CompanyOne and the Huntington that use Boston as their locale. But what I hope the Huntington and I will be able to do with The Luck of the Irish is use our being in Boston to inform the rewrites that I am doing on the play by consulting not only with researchers and scholars in the Boston area but also with people who may remember how Boston real estate practices influenced post World War Two life here. To do this, I am looking forward to the Huntington possibly hosting a series of discussions that invite those researchers and scholars and members of the community to discuss what they know. It’s my hope these discussions can help as I refine what I have already written. I am also looking forward to having research support from the Huntington, as often I must choose between research and writing the dang thing, and writing always wins that particular battle.

In addition to how the process will interact with the community, this collaboration with the Huntington is also exciting to me because artistically Lisa Timmel, Peter DuBois, Charles Haugland and I have talked not only about the histories that the play presents on stage, but also how the play itself is rendered. My writing is easily poetic and cyclical, but in our initial discussions about my upcoming rewrites, the four of us were able to discuss how I might restructure the piece so that I am making the best use of conventional structure in ways that will strengthen the play. And while it may seem a small thing, it is in fact (for a writer who often wags her finger at conventional structure and dramaturgy) not. Delving back into the script in this way is both challenging and affirming, and I look forward to continuing to do so.

The most I can say about this upcoming venture is that because of sitting in that balcony however many years ago the Huntington has felt like home and working on The Luck of the Irish in that home feels just as true as those words that flew up and into me when I was twelve.

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One of the most extensive and admired programs in the country, the Huntington’s Education Department serves more than 10,000 students, teachers, and community organizations each year with student matinees, state-wide Poetry Out Loud and the August Wilson Monologue Competition

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