Race & Real Estate in Next Theatre’s Luck of the Irish by Kirsten Greenidge

Next Theatre Company presented the Midwest premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s Luck of the Irish. The multigenerational drama revolves around a house that is “ghost-bought” in the 1950s by the working class Irish-American Donovan family for the affluent African American Taylor family. Ghost buying was a real estate transaction in which a white family was paid to formally purchase a home in a segregated or all-white area on behalf of a black family; it was a device marginalized groups and their allies used to bypass prejudice. In Luck of the Irish, this transaction goes horribly awry. The narrative jumps back and forth in time between the 1950s and the present day, as the Taylors’ granddaughter and her family move back into the house in a still-mostly-white suburb.

Four actors on stage
Next Theatre Company's production of Luck of the Irish. Photo by Michael Brosilow

An implicit argument of Luck of the Irish, directed by Damon Kiely, may be that class mobility is a myth. In the 1950s, the black, upper middle class Taylors have money to buy a nice home in an upscale suburb not only because Rex (André Teamer) is a doctor but because his wife Lucy’s (Mildred Marie Langford) father had the resources to sell some land to give them enough for a down payment. Lucy wears pearls and quotes Robert Frost; both she and Rex are clearly college educated. They speak in fluid Standard English, in clear contrast to the Irish American Joe (Chris Rickett) and Patty Ann Donovan’s (Cora Vander Broek) thick working class Boston accents.  The Donovans need money; a third party introduces them to the Taylors who need a white family to help them buy a home in a white suburb. Patty Ann, in particular, resents both this arrangement and that a black family could have so much more than her family.

Two generations later, the upper middle class black Taylor family is still upper middle class—their children and grandchildren have graduate degrees and white-collar jobs, and most importantly for this story, own an inherited home. The working class white Donovans have not raised their standard of living in fifty years. Patty Ann Donovan needs to feel like her lot in life has improved—like she has gotten up a rung on the ladder of the American Dream. She has spent fifty years stewing in rage over every holiday fruitcake Lucy Taylor sent her. The Taylors have more than she does; Patty Ann can no more afford to send annual fruitcake to casual acquaintances than purchase a large home in an upscale suburb. Patty Ann’s bitterness leads her to harass the Taylors in the present day for having, in her view, cut in front of her in the line to prosperity.

In the present day, Hannah Taylor (Lily Mojekwu) is hyper-aware of the family’s blackness in this sea of suburban whiteness; it threatens to drown her. Her husband Rich (Austin Tally) and ten-year-old son Miles (Mesiyah Oduro-Kwarten) do not appear at all fazed to be living in a place in which theirs is the only black family. Miles is hyperactive, as are many ten-year-old boys, but he appears well adjusted and popular—his problems seem quite ordinary. Patty Ann’s harassment sends Hannah into a spiral of anxiety as she fears she has made a terrible mistake moving her black family back to this white place.

Next Theatre is located in Evanston, a racially integrated, politically liberal suburb just north of Chicago. It is known for its excellent public schools and close proximity to the city; Evanston is one of the towns affluent young families relocate to when they want to retain access to both diversity and city resources while avoiding the Chicago Public School system. In the 2010 census, Evanston was approximately 65 percent white, 18 percent black, 9 percent Asian, 9 percent Latino, and 4 percent multiracial. Larger percentages of the black and Latino populations live in a handful of neighborhoods on the west and southwest sides of town, but those neighborhoods still have large numbers of white and Asian families and are far more integrated than most neighborhoods in the city of Chicago proper. As a result, Evanston has a reputation for diversity.

Within this context, Next Theatre’s production of Luck of the Irish seems to implicitly compliment Evanston audiences for their choice to live in this diverse enclave, in which a family like the Taylors would never feel so isolated as they do in the all-white suburb of Boston in which the play is set. It makes for a comfortable viewing experience for me as an upper-middle class white audience member. I watch a family who speaks much like I do, wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the name of their alma mater as I do, and drinking imported beer like I do. I can recognize Hannah’s absurd and mundane daily struggle to get children to eat dinner and go to bed. I can think how the Taylors would be welcome in my affluent, interracial neighborhood, feel good that I am not a racist like Mrs. Donovan. I can be glad that people like her—other people, people from a different generation—are dying out and leaving me my affluent, racially integrated world of cupcake eating, imported beer drinking, college educated neighbors.

Within this context, Next Theatre’s production of Luck of the Irish seems to implicitly compliment Evanston audiences for their choice to live in this diverse enclave

Luck of the Irish is a beautiful play. Greenidge paints a loving and nuanced portrait of an upper-middle class black family. With it, she raises important questions about the ongoing legacy of racism and the lack of real class mobility in the United States. I hope Luck of the Irish gets productions all over the country in places like Evanston, in which its message reflects the dominant discourse of the community. I also hope it gets productions in places where an upper middle class black family would be isolated, despite the best intentions of their affluent white neighbors, for the sheer fact of their difference. 

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

8
Add Comment
Newest First

Sue, I'm sorry you were offended by the essay. My intention was to highlight the 'easiness' of the experience- at this particular theater at in particular community- of a play I think may have been intended to make audience members do more than pat themselves on the bat. I don't think your anger is misplaced; we live in a country with massive inequality, and lots of theaters choose to program work that will sit easily with affluent subscribers.

Is this what theater has come too? Pandering to audiences for their alleged superiority? What's next, a play about how wonderful lawyers are that is performed in court houses between trials?

As I got about 2/3rds the way through this essay I was shocked that, instead of being critical of the play for it's pandering, it celebrated it. And there was no mention of how similar this play is to several other recent ones, including "Clybourne Park".

Well, at least the comments had some gravitas.

But the bottom line is there is nothing in this play about how to improve the plight of most black people (who are not, despite what this play seems to imply, doing well) or the vast numbers of white people who are not doing well (which the play does seem to acknowlege). It's simply about pandering to those who have done well under the current system.

But remember the old basketball analogy: How many star players would be flipping burgers (and vice versa) if the height of the basket was changed by even two inches? Or, as Joseph Cambell put it (relating an ancient story regarding a group of lowly ants walking by): "Former Indras all."

I do not, at all, disagree with you, Chicago-lander. I admit, that may be why my tone was perhaps a little too arch in some moments of this piece, "Diversity" and "inclusion" are a lot harder to achieve than people would like them to be.

Evanston is incredibly segregated, racially and economically. As a suburb, it isolates itself from the "riff-raff" of the city with carefully crafted transportation policies. Roger's Park--directly south of Evanston--on the other hand is an example of significant diversity and a relatively organically integrated community.

Thanks so much for your note, Patrick. You make an important point. It's true- I can't be certain that black families in Evanston don't ever feel isolated. The play absolutely engages with the ways in which Hannah and Rich respond differently to the same context. I don't mean to diminish the real feeling of isolation some might feel in spaces that- to me as a white person- may feel "welcoming" or "diverse". And that is, indeed, one of the legacies of racism in this country and privilege in action. The play's critique of it is important.

So glad that you enjoyed Luck of the Irish and that it received such a good production in Evanston. The production in Boston from the Huntington was stunningly good (disclaimer--Kirsten is in my playwrights' group). The issues and questions it raised resonated deeply .

I wonder, though, if perhaps you might be overlooking a question asked by the play. Is perhaps a suburb like Evanston the ideal place for a play like Luck of the Irish? Are you so certain that there aren't upper middle class black families living in town who might still feel as isolated as the Taylors, despite being there for multiple generations? Certainly Chicago's history around race and real estate is no less fraught than Boston's. The suburb where the Taylors live, I'm sure, feels to itself like a pleasantly integrated, liberal place. But how do the legacies of race and class divisions persist over time, despite what we might see on the surface?