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INTERVIEW: Kirsten Greenidge Has The Luck of the Irish

The Lucille Lortel-nominated playwright discusses her new play at Huntington Theatre Company.

Kirsten Greenidge
Kirsten Greenidge recently received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for the Off-Broadway premiere of her play, Milk Like Sugar. Now, The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of her The Luck of the Irish, currently in previews at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, with an opening set for April 11.

This new play goes back and forth between the late 1950s, when a well-to-do African-American couple pay a struggling Irish family to "ghost-buy" a house in a segregated neighborhood on their behalf, and 50 years later, when the couple's granddaughter grapples with the contemporary racial and social issues that stem from living in a primarily white community. Greenidge recently spoke to TheaterMania about the play.

THEATERMANIA: The Luck of the Irish is set in Boston and it's premiering in Boston. Was that intentional?
KIRSTEN GREENIDGE: It was a happy outcome for me, but not necessarily intentional. I'm not at the point yet where I can necessarily pick and choose where my new plays get produced! You're just happy somebody wants to hear your work at all, and it hopefully builds from there.

TM: What motivated you to tell this particular story?
KG: I started writing it when my grandmother had just passed away and I began to think of her life and what she had gone through. At that point we had also sold her house, and I had some of her things. Something starts to percolate when you're sitting in the midst of all this person's stuff that they had accumulated and thinking about them. I started to remember this story my mother had told about how my grandparents bought their house in Arlington, and the play started from there.

TM: So it's based on your grandmother's story?
KG: I would say inspired. It's not autobiographical at all.

TM: What kind of research did you end up doing, particularly for events in the 1950s?
KG: Not a whole ton, actually. I based it on some of the stories my mother had told me about my grandparents and then I really posted to my imagination to come up with scenarios. I did attempt to do research on ghost-buying, but I couldn't find that particular term. There's a lot of information about blockbusting, different organizations that would take interest in a particular Black family and say "we're going to move you into this suburb and use this as a way to combat racism and housing discrimination." But that wasn't my family's story. They were really interested in getting a bigger house with a yard for their kids in a place that had good schools. Many people can relate to that more than saying we're going to become the spokesperson for X, Y, or Z.

TM: Does the neighborhood the play is set in actually exist in Boston?
KG: I made it up in my head. There is an actual place where the house is supposed to be situated in and it's in Arlington. But the neighborhood is fictional. They don't mention the school's name but the school that the kids would go to is fictional. All that kind of stuff is made up.

TM: Given the premise of your play -- in which an African-American family moves into an all-white neighborhood and what happens decades later -- it seems inevitable that comparisons will be made to A Raisin in the Sun and its semi-sequel that Bruce Norris wrote, Clybourne Park. What do you think are the key factors that make this either a fair or unfair comparison?
KG: I purposely have not read Clybourne Park yet. If I'm writing, I try not to read other people's plays, even if they're 200 years old. Melia [Bensussen, the director] read it on my behalf and said, "you're doing something different, don't stress about it." I hope that it's different. I wouldn't want to cover the same ground as the play that won the Pulitzer; that's not so cool. I've been writing this play for about five years, and used to describe this as what happens after A Raisin in the Sun. Then Clybourne Park was presented at Playwrights Horizons and won the Pulitzer and I was like, I can't describe it that way anymore. So it's a Boston story inspired by my family, now. The one thing I can say is that it is very much an homage to my own family and what they went through, so in that sense, it's only my play.

Marianna Bassham, Nikkole Salter, and
McCaleb Burnett in The Luck of the Irish
(© T. Charles Erickson)
TM: Can you talk a little about the show's title?
KG: The play is an examination of how race and class intersect in this secure fictional town. I think sometimes in this country there's this weird tension where if you're really successful, you work hard and learn how to earn money, there's this idea that some of it might come from being lucky. When I started writing the play, I was using that term as a way to describe how each of the families feel about each other. It's not necessarily a nice term. "May you have the luck of the Irish" is not a nice thing to say because the Irish had a really tough time navigating through the world, with how they came to America in New York, Boston, and other urban areas. I thought that was perfect for my play because we were talking a lot about the idea that these families think that they want certain things, and when they get them it brings a whole other host of problems.

I met someone on an airplane and he said "What do you do?" And I said, "Oh I'm a playwright" He's from Medford and I live in Medford now. I said, "You should come to my play." And he said, "Oh, what's it called?" "It's called Luck of the Irish." He just totally stopped and my heart sank, and I was like oh my gosh I hope I've done the right thing with this play. Plays are like your children; you want to make sure you named them the right name and you're not misleading people. He looked at me and he said, "I want to see that play." Which scared me even more. Talking about Black people and Irish people in Boston is a very tricky, dangerous thing to do. I am trying to steel myself for when the play opens.