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.
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.