Irish demographics are changing and theatre is poised to harness that energy
Bewley’s Café Theatre and The Lock Inn are streaming an online revival of They Float Up by Jacquelyn Reingold, a play about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina set in New Orleans in 2010. It is a chat-up scenario between an older white woman (Susannah De Wrixon) and a young black man (Kwaku Fortune) and ran successfully in Bewley’s in the summer of 2019. It’s a show that would have been hard to produce until recent years because the pool of Irish actors of colour was so small. One of the few familiar mixed-race actors on the Irish stage in recent decades was Ruth Negga, now an Oscar-nominated international star. For a long time she was a lonely presence, along with writer/actor Bisi Adigun and a couple of others. But in recent years, as Irish society has changed, so too has the talent pool. There is now a good number of young black actors emerging with the training and experience to take on leading roles. Fortune has had a busy CV over the past few years, including the crucial romantic role of Dara in the excellent revival of Marina Carr’s On Raftery’s Hill at the Abbey; a great turn in Peat by Kate Heffernan at the Ark; and he also featured in the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It at the Everyman. Felicia Olusanya (aka Felispeaks) shone brightly in the Abbey’s recent outdoor production of The Great Hunger at Imma. Ryan Lincoln is surfacing in a number of important Irish films, including this year’s release Broken Law and previously Kissing Candice. Ghaliah Conroy, a dancer/actor, was memorable in Malaprop Theatre’s Before You Say Anything in the Fringe Festival in September. There are many others.
The autobiography of Willie Fay, one of the founding actors at the Abbey Theatre, includes an account of the first tour of Ireland of a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an example of the countless stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular anti-slavery novel. In the 1890s, Fay was a jobbing actor scrabbling for work and answered a company advertisement from a Belfast-based manager, an RB Lewis. “Imagine my astonishment upon meeting Mr Lewis to find that he was a coloured actor, who had been a slave in Virginia and had come over to England in the first company of Christy Minstrels to cross the Atlantic,” he wrote.
Each evening, after the five-act play, the company performed a variety show: “These black boys were wonderful dancers too, with a genius for improvising new steps and new harmonies for the plantation songs they so beautifully sang.”
Lewis was later killed in a house fire in Fermoy, Co Cork. According to Fay, he saved the three girls who were rooming there, but went back in to save the takings and the roof collapsed. “He was the only coloured man that toured Ireland playing Uncle Tom — a good actor, a beautiful singer and a kind manager to his company,” he wrote. “May he rest in peace on Irish soil.”
Ireland looks different now. Representation of a typical Irish classroom or housing estate needs a couple of non-white kids to be realistic. But real diversity needs to be about more than simply reflecting a crowd.
The world’s consciousness has been raised by recent protests about the sidelining of black talent at the Oscars and elsewhere. Ireland, demographically, comes late to the diversity issue. Being an island nation, and an impoverished one until recently, we had few immigrants. In Fay’s words about Ireland at the turn of the 20th century: “In most of the towns we visited, the people had never seen a coloured man or woman, still less a coloured actor, so we had an attraction that no other touring company ever possessed.”
The performing arts in Ireland have an opportunity, as this generation emerges, to create an exciting scene that reflects the Ireland of now. For art to have the vital ingredient of authenticity it must mirror change; but for art to have the exciting ingredient of courage, it must advance it.
‘They Float Up’ streams at thelockinn.io from November 11