Originally published in Village, Sunday, 30 December 2007

“In dem days was before the Africans came to Parnell Street.” Them days was before the Africans came to our stages, too.

This was the year when immigrants got themselves a mayor, a minister, and a voice on the Irish stage. As in politics, so too in the theatre: most of the talking for immigrants is being done by the Irish – but not all.

Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street, like many Irish plays this year, was set against the background of an Ireland changing its skin colour. He set his play in 1999, with the couple at its heart recalling events in the early 1990s, “before the Africans”.Now, Parnell St has turned over again, to become Dublin’s Chinatown. Barry didn’t try to capture that hectic change, but his snapshot of a time in Dublin’s history already gone was an elegant testament to its fact.

Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle’s rewrite of The Playboy of the Western World was the most overtly “multicultural” production yet on the Irish stage. By casting a Nigerian as Christy Mahon, they made the play ostensibly about immigration. But Synge’s play resisted co-option. Adigun and Doyle revived the farcical comedy in the play, but didn’t find any insights into the plight of immigrants today in Synge’s archetypal story.

There is more insight in the work Bisi Adigun is doing with his own company, Arambe. These productions lacked the expertise and polish of Playboy, but The Dilemma of a Ghost and his Nigerian version of The Kings of the Kilburn High Road gave us African plays that didn’t pivot around Irish characters, and were richer for it.

Gianina Carbunaria’s Kebab, like Arambe’s work, was as interesting for where it came from as for what it said on stage: set entirely in Ireland, Kebab had no Irish characters and barely any references to Ireland at all. Integration may be the concept of choice in political and NGO circles, but this suggested the most compelling art may come from the margins.

John Millington Synge once wrote: “In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten.”
It would be as easy to romanticise this new Ireland as Synge romanticised an old one. But there are new voices that want to speak from different places, voices that know of things we have forgotten, or never known, and they will produce work that is fiery, magnificent and tender.

It’s up to us to listen.