BOSTON — Race and real estate are touchy topics. A playwriting fellow at the Huntington Theatre Company is taking on both in the new production “The Luck of the Irish.” The drama’s plot is driven by an under-the-radar home buying practice known as ghost buying.
Playwright Kirsten Greenidge agreed to take me on a drive through Arlington, her home town. Every turn we took and building we passed evoked memories.
“My mother always used the term ‘ghost buying’ when talking about how my grandparents bought their house in Arlington, their first house,” Greenidge said.
The 37-year-old dramatist pointed at the bank her grandparents used, and the library where she had her first job. We stopped in front of the house where she lived with her mother. Greenidge grew up in this predominantly white town, surrounded by three generations of her African-American family. Her grandparents lived a few miles outside Arlington center.
“The story I was told is that my grandmother and a friend of hers went to look at this house, and they dressed very well,” Greenidge said. “The friend actually did happen to be Jewish — but she had blond hair and blue eyes — and they went as if my grandmother was maybe the maid, or a housekeeper, or a friend that was not the one buying the house.”
That particular house doesn’t exist anymore. Greenidge says it was torn down to make way for the Concord Turnpike. But the story behind its purchase has fascinated her for years. After her grandparents died, the author’s imagination started churning, and she wrote “The Luck of the Irish.”
It features a similar Boston suburb – and a similar real estate deal. The transaction in her play goes terribly wrong. It’s a homeowner’s nightmare.
The conflict starts in the 1950s when Lucy and Rex Taylor, a successful African-American couple, pay a struggling Irish-American couple to act as a front so they can buy a house in an all-white suburb. Fifty years later, after the Taylors die and leave the property to their grandchildren, the Irish ghost buyers return. Patty Ann and Joe Donovan say they want “their” house back. The action and tensions in “The Luck of the Irish” oscillate between the past and the present.
In one powerful scene, Mrs. Donovan, now elderly, says, “We’ve got the communion coming up so we’ll be needing you to move out by the first.”
Hannah, Rex and Lucy’s granddaughter, reacts defensively, saying, “Now Mrs. Donovan, you and I both know everything was signed 50 years ago and this house is…” Patty Ann cuts her off, claiming, “It’s borrowed luck, that’s what it is.”
Hannah is a young mother, like Kirsten Greenidge. The character wants the same things for her children that the writer does — a nice home in a nice neighborhood, in a nice town with good schools. But Greenidge makes it very clear that her play is not autobiographical. It’s not about her family. And it’s not about ghost buying.
“These people are based on my grandparents, but they are not my grandparents,” Greenidge explained. “So it was borrowing, but then giving myself the freedom to make up a family and make up a scenario.”
But creating fiction from fact can be tricky.
“Sometimes this play does feel like exposing secrets that people do not want to talk about,” Greenidge said.
As she researched what her family called “ghost buying,” she found more stories of marginalized groups using strategies to bypass prejudice — dating back to slavery.
In this century, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Jewish family asked an Irish lawyer to buy their house in Medford when he was a child. This very real history, and the fact that Greenidge’s play is being staged in Boston, is keeping Greenidge up at night.
“I didn’t want it to be a play where you’ve got the black family that is sainted and victimized, and then you’ve got the white family that just wants to take stuff from them,” Greenidge said. “I wanted to make sure that what was captured was living in Boston where there [are] a lot of anxieties and history surrounding ethnicity and race. The black family also has its own prejudices and preconceived notions about ethnicity and class and money.”
To reveal all of the complexities and decades-long impact of segregation, Greenidge created a script layered with meaning, and she relied on her actors and director Melia Bensussen to help flesh it out.
“Everybody is right, from their own point,” Melia Bensussen explained during a recent rehearsal. “So that, to me, is a tremendous leap that she takes as a writer, where there’s empathy for everybody.”
But actress Nancy E. Carroll admits her character in “The Luck of the Irish” is pretty unlikable. She plays Mrs. Donovan, the Irish mother of six who demands her house back after 50 years.
“Oh, she’s not a very nice person,” Carroll said. “She really epitomizes bigotry and racism and she’s totally stuck in her own era. This is a woman who cannot let go of what she thinks, as she calls it, is ‘the order of things.’ ”
At one point in the play Mrs. Donovan says, “There’s an order to things. There’s an order to who should get what, and when, and how. There’s an order to this town.”
Her husband Joe pleads, “Patty now,” then says to Hannah, “I’m so sorry.”
Mrs. Donovan continues, “There’s an order to this town.”
“Yes I know,” Hannah replies, then says, “I am very familiar with this town.”
But even with what seems like ruthless behavior, Carroll, who’s also Irish and lives in Boston, predicts theater-goers will have trouble taking sides with any of the characters on stage.
“I mean, you’re really going to fight with yourself,” Carroll said.
Francesca Choy-Kee agrees. She’s taken on the role of Hannah, the young, black mother who butts heads with Patty Ann Donovan.
“It’s not black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray in this play,” Choy-Kee said.
Choy-Kee lives in New York, is African-American and 1/8th Chinese, and believes “The Luck of the Irish” isn’t a black story, or an Irish story, or a just Boston story.
“I think every metropolitan city has this, sort of, identity issue to contend with. And not only is it not just a Boston story, it’s a human story,” Choy-Kee said. “You know, we’re in transit and looking for home and identity and worth all the time. It can be a very elusive thing.”
And playwright Kirsten Greenidge says that quest for the American dream is the larger truth she’s hoping to illuminate in “The Luck of the Irish.” Which brings us to the title.
Through her research, Greenidge discovered the phrase was coined during the period when Irish immigrants were heavily discriminated against in the U.S. To have the “luck” of the Irish was actually to be unlucky.
“And so I decided to keep that title,” the writer explained, saying both families question what it is they’re searching for and asking for in life. “If we get that thing we’re asking for then everything will be perfect.”
But sometimes, Greenidge reminded me, getting what you ask for isn’t always a blessing. Sometimes she said, “it’s a curse.”