Months of workshops and interviews with ethnic minorities inform five short plays revealing how intercultural Northern Ireland is changing for the better and the worse
What’s it like to be from here but not from here? To live in Northern Ireland yet feel excluded?
Northern Irish identity, so long simplified as orange or green, Taig or Prod, us versus them, is changing. Terra Nova Productions, based in East Belfast, is a Northern Irish Theatre company putting intercultural work at its core. The company mission, to explore where cultures 'meet, mix and explode', lies at the heart of the Arrivals project.
A stated aim is to engage with and represent ethnic minorities, enabling expression of views and values between the indigenous and ethnic populations. Arrivals2, a freshly produced piece, builds on 2014's Arrivals. It is the second outing in a planned trilogy highlighting the multicultural nature of contemporary Northern Irish society.
Arrivals2 focuses on racism suffered by migrants but also spotlights issues of second generation people from an ethnic background. Directed by Andrea Montgomery, an Irish Canadian, this series of short plays is termed 'tapas theatre', featuring essentially five separate and short vignettes by five different writers tilting at a coherent whole.
The plays within a play were developed over months of workshops and interviews with members of the local ethnic and minority communities. All five pieces are performed here, at the Playhouse in Derry following a run in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre, by various combinations of a four-person ensemble. Louise Parker is from Northern Ireland; Melissa Dean is a Londoner of mixed race with a Northern Irish mother; Robert Bertrand and Nathaneal Campbell are English actors of second generation Caribbean descent.
Opener 'The Presence', by playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, takes place in a haunted Belfast house inhabited by four ethnically various characters. The ghostly presence makes it none too subtly obvious that these persons do not belong in this place and that they must leave. Through forceful and venomous voice, the analogy with racism, hatred, fear and misunderstanding is cleverly, and heavily, hammered home.
Second piece 'Secrets', by poet and writer Jim Meredith, is a fresh and witty two-hander played out by Bertrand and Dean. Two characters, half-brother and half-sister with the same father, are brought together for the first time at a funeral. They deliver alternative asides playing on the complexities of relationships between hitherto unknown siblings. It’s engagingly written and acted and shot through with a healthy dose of humour for a setting that could otherwise be overwhelmingly tragic.
'The Ties That Bind', by writer and actress Maggie Cronin, involves three medical students, two black and one white, buying a house in a Loyalist area. 'Two black men and a Taig,' exclaims the Catholic girl in a budding romance with an African man enamoured with the Orange Lodge, as she points at the Union Jack-bedecked street. 'If intolerance is everywhere, I’ll take it at the lowest price,' is the telling reply from the other black man. This is another touching and affecting slice of life concerned with the nuances of identity, place and memory.
Fourth act in the series, 'The Lost Souls Party', by poet and writer Deirdre Cartmill, centres on a Halloween party thrown by a boozy motor-mouth Belfast girl dominating her compliant yet underwhelmed black Lesbian lover with a son from a previous relationship. In steps a character who may, or may not, be God, and events take a tumultuous turn.
Possessiveness, manipulation, domestic violence and victimhood all add up to an ultimately confusing and unsatisfactory mix that unfortunately falls short of gelling. Cartmill's piece has some revelatory and heightening moments, but is the least successful of the pieces.
Show closer 'Hatchet', by theatre practitioner Fionnuala Kennedy, is a monologue exceptionally well delivered by Nathaneal Campbell, who convincingly portrays the experience of a black, Belfast-born person.
Campbell expresses his love for the city yet sympathetically and humourously reveals how it is to be different in Belfast, to not quite be included or accepted by all. His experiences and a tragic development ultimately drive him from his home – this is a sharp, fast-paced and poignant piece.
Arrivals2, here performed in Derry's Playhouse theatre, ultimately pulls through with the theme of a cultural and ethnic shake up to the Northern Irish social mix. It does so for the most part in an entertaining and engaging way that avoids the hectoring or lecturing slant that socially or politically charged theatre can often be marked by. It reminds us that each person, no matter shade or tone of skin, regardless of ethnic identity or cultural diversity, has a life and story as real and valid as the next one.
Arrivals2 tours Northern Ireland until March 28. Visit the Terra Nova Productions website for full listings.