Untold Stories: A Note from Playwright Kirsten Greenidge
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. 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.
It’s fitting that 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 Repertory 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. 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.