The Father of American Music Comes Back to Derry

New play explores the life of one the city's famous, forgotten sons

'He was an incredible creator who was really passionate about what he did.'

Director Anne McMaster is upbeat as she describes the subject of her latest project, Kind Hearts and Gentle People.

Peter McDonald’s play, which centres around the life and times of Stephen Collins Foster, runs at the Playhouse stage in Derry-Londonderry from October 12 – 15.

Described as 'the Father of American music', Foster wrote some of America’s earliest and best-known songs. These include 'Oh! Susanna' (listen below), 'Camptown Races' and 'Old Folks At Home'. 

Fosteris also one of Derry-Londonderry’s forgotten famous sons, his great grandfather Alexander having emigrated from the city during the 18th century.

McMaster and her cast hope to explore the humanity of the man, to show that he was more than 'the guy who wrote all those beautiful tunes'. 

Kind Hearts and Gentle People shows the man behind the music, in a gracious, loving and graceful manner. And, throughout rehearsals, McMaster has found Foster to have been an even more significant figure than they initially believed.

For a man who died at 37, with the same amount of cents in his pocket, Foster’s achievements are remarkable. Especially so considering that he lived in an environment where music was not deemed a suitable career for a man.

And, as the director adds, he was following in the footsteps of a marvellously talented sibling – his sister Charlotte, who died at the much younger age of 20.

'Foster's lyrics express past memories of love for the cottage he grew up in, his wife, and the rest of his family,' McMaster explains. 'Such sentiments are unutterably sad, but he expressed them in the most poignant way, with beautiful melodies.'

In contrast to Foster’s fortunes, rehearsals for the play have been an 'absolute joy', with all four cast members – Kieran Griffiths, Alan Wright, Nicky Harley and Martin Bradley – thrilled to be part of a challenging production.

McMaster shares their sentiments, admitting that she looks forward to rehearsing every evening with a cast that is dedicated and professional about what they do. Thanks to them, she says, the journey from script to stage has turned out to be a fascinating one.

'We’ve all got the same amount of passion about bringing this story to life,' McMaster beams. 'It may sound a little clichéd, but we’re all on the same page.'

The director is also hoping that the production team will be able to relay the significance of the Derry~Londonderry connection to the audience, and in doing so, add extra heart to the play.

'The natural "melancholy" of the Irish is very visible in Foster's work. But there’s also a real stoicism in his life that is very much in line with the Irish spirit, in that no matter what happened to him, he kept going. And we’re hoping to show that.'

Playwright Peter McDonald is also happy with the way the play has come together. 'The cast and director have truly breathed life into my work. I’m confident about how it will turn out. And it’s all down to them.'

Kind Hearts And Gentle People runs from Wednesday October 12 to Saturday October 15 at The Playhouse Theatre, Derry-Londonderry. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.