Monday 28 March 2022

Backstage at Paradise Square

About 20 minutes into the musical Paradise Square, a piece of unscripted magic occurs on the dance floor of a bar in New York City’s Five Points. 

The stage is throbbing to the steps of Irish immigrants and African-Americans when the characters played by Garret Coleman of Hammerstep and the vivacious Chloe Davis come face to face.

They smile in recognition of each other’s talent and allure, before launching into a riveting dance-off.

Without a word being uttered we understand how amalgamation between Irish and African-Americans became such a factor in mid-19thCentury New York until it was swept away by the fury of the 1863 Draft Riots.

Another non-verbal revelation occurs when the two communities are being torn apart by the first Federal Army Draft that targeted immigrants but purposely ignored African-Americans.

At the height of an argument word arrives that a popular Irishman has lost his life while serving in Virginia with the Fighting 69thRegiment.

A silence descends on the bar, broken only by the sobs of the deceased’s African-American wife. Her people are grieved by the news, but an ineffable pain spreads across the faces of the Irish.

Every immigrant will recognize it – the sorrow you feel when you realize a friend will never see Ireland again, and will be laid to rest far from home.

Paradise Square embraces such unscripted moments, and this is a look at some of them from the intimacy of backstage.

I give much of the credit to an amazing cast, many of whom have put years of detailed work into building their characters.

Paradise Square began back in 2012 as Hard Times at the Cell theatre on 23rdStreet, and morphed into a large scale musical at workshops in Toronto, and productions in Berkeley and Chicago. This New York story has finally arrived home and can be seen in preview at The Barrymore on 47thStreet before opening on April 3rd.

In the course of its odyssey many people gave so much to this project. And yet, the spine of the piece remains the same: that two brutalized peoples, Black and Irish, met in a downtown slum, and for a brief moment created a new idea of what America could be.

Little was written about them, for history has little interest in the poor; suffice it to say these interracial couples and their children were despised and given the name amalgamationists by the uptown establishment.

Even a social reformer like Charles Dickens was horrified - though he marveled at the steps and music they created in their raucous dancehalls, where American Tap Dancing emerged from the fiery competitions between African Juba and Irish step champions.

These are not the streets of the sepia-toned American dream beloved of Hollywood and television; both Black and Irish have trouble negotiating the ladder to acceptance in a racist and sectarian land.

Two women drive the action. African-American Nelly O’Brien manages her saloon and awaits the return of her Irish husband from war; while her sister-in-law Annie covertly aids Rev. Samuel Lewis, her Black husband, in transporting escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.

Actors Joaquino Kalukango and Chilina Kennedy bring our heroines to life. Both are descended from immigrants, Angolan and Irish. They light up the stage with their talent, imagination, and humanity. And, oh, what voices!

Paradise Square opens a window to a brutal American past where slavery was a fact of life, and Irish immigrants were despised for their religion and their refusal to fit into a sectarian society.

These circumstances could have turned Nelly O’Brien and her feisty sister-in-law against each other, but the bonds of family hold them together.

In their unscripted moments this cast is often at their best, just like the Irish and African-Americans must have been when confronting bigotry and discrimination in the Points.

The Draft Riots utterly changed their neighborhood, the inter-racial dancehalls closed, and “everyone went back to their own.” Yet, 160 years later we now have a Black mayor running our city and an Irish-American governor presiding over our state.

Our two communities have so much in common – music, dance, partying, a thirst for justice, and a love of family. Perhaps, the cast of Paradise Square can show us a way back together - in our own unscripted moments.

Friday 11 March 2022

Come for the Craic - New York is back!

 Do you feel like the sun has begun to shine again – that after a long winter the dawns now arrive earlier and seem more hopeful?

What a change in a matter of weeks! Was it only January that Omicron swept through these streets and sent people scurrying back home after an optimistic Advent?

But we soon found that this variant’s bark was worse than its bite, and after some days of discomfort most people recovered fairly quickly. There were exceptions: we lost a popular and accomplished musician, Brian O’Neill, a Tyrone boy who will never be forgotten on these shores.

But the infection figures are now at a very manageable level, and New York City is open for business again.

Hey, why not come see us – St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner and you know what a blast that can be. The Parade will be back in full force – the streets will be ours again.

You couldn’t pick a better time. Hotels have plenty of vacancies and there are deals to be had.

If Broadway is your thing, why wait? Even tickets for Hamilton can be had, not to mention that your daughter will be in your coolness debt forever for taking her to Wicked on the Great White Way.

A host of new shows are opening including Paradise Square, one that I conceived and co-wrote. And let me fill you in on a secret: preview shows on Broadway are rarely any different than post-opening shows – except for the reduced prices. In fact, they often sizzle with excitement because of the thrill of the new.

And on no account forget that in New York City we have two Irish themed Off-Broadway theatres that are among the best in the world.

Recently, I saw Boucicault’s Streets of New York turned into a vibrant musical by director, Charlotte Moore, while CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly, one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Eugene O’Neill, is now stewarding A Touch of the Poet at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

And get thee to the new Irish Arts Center building in Hells Kitchen where Martin Flynn, and Paul Muldoon recently played, and Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical from Belfast will soon shake the rafters.

Congratulations to Aidan Connolly, Pauline Turley, Rachael Gilkey, and the welcoming staff on the opening of this state of the art cultural facility.

It’s good to see yellow taxis again, but I like to walk these streets. That’s where you catch the pulse of the city. And don’t let the doomsayers scare you off the subways – that’s how New Yorkers get around.

One mode of transport that’s often forgotten is the ferry services. Take a walk down the West Side and, near the Irish Famine Memorial, you can hop on a boat that will take you across the Hudson to Jersey City or Hoboken.

Or stroll further down river to The Battery and catch the Staten Island Ferry – won’t cost you a dime and you can get up-close views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

When you land at St. George Terminal take a taxi or Shanks’ Mare to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Drop by the Noble Maritime Collection and say hello to my friend, Dawn Daniels, who’ll fill you in on the history of this remarkable New York treasure.

It’s hard to beat the ferry to Rockaway Beach from Wall Street. Yeah, you’ve heard the song by The Ramones, but there’s nothing quite like seeing Bay Ridge, the Verrazano Bridge and Coney Island from the water before you arrive in the Republic of Rockaway.

You might not need a passport but you definitely enter a different dimension when you hit the Irish Riviera.

To top it all, Rockaway has become cool with surfers and hipsters in the last 20 years. You might even run into resident poet-rocker Patti Smith as she goes about her business.

Do drop by Rogers Pub on Beach 116thStreet, meet the old guard and say hello to my brother, Jimmy Kirwan, who holds court there on Tuesday afternoons.

There’s so much else to see in our city. Come back to us. We’re open for business again, and as Frankie says, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”