Boston audiences are getting two new plays by Kirsten Greenidge (she/her) back to back this spring at the Huntington Theatre. Our Daughters, Like Pillars (April 8-May 8) is a poignantly funny and personal look at how family bonds can both support and confine us, while Common Ground Revisited (May 27-June 26) dramatizes a sprawling book about segregation in Boston schools. In the hands of a local playwright whose roots go back three generations in the Boston area—and whose take on education is informed by her experiences as a parent of school-aged kids and as a teacher at Boston University—both pieces are deeply poignant and quite literally close to home.
Our Daughters, Like Pillars, premiering under the direction of Kimberly Senior (she/her), was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre and workshopped in 2017 under the title And Moira Spins at the Huntington Playwriting Fellows Summer Workshop Series. The play’s central character, Lavinia, eldest of a trio of sisters, has assembled her fraying clan for a weeklong vacation to announce her plan that they should all move in together. Greenidge, not incidentally, lives with her two younger sisters, historian Kerri Greenidge and novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge.
The playwright says her plot was inspired by Dorothy West’s novel The Living Is Easy, in which a woman wants her reluctant family to share a brownstone with her. But, she acknowledges, “There are definitely a lot of strands that are drawn from me and my sisters. I’m trying to make sure I pull back a little bit, consciously, and massage those strands so it doesn’t feel like us.” How much of her is in Lavinia? “I think if you talk to my sisters, they’d say I’m very bossy. I don’t find that to be true at all,” she deadpans.
Senior would pick a different word to describe her: “Kirsten is so steady,” the director says. “And I think it brings a confidence to the room. Her steadiness guides us all to feel in safe hands.” She thinks audiences sense it, too: “We trust our writer when we are watching her work.”
Our Daughters, Like Pillars belongs in the category of COVID-era drama, though it was largely written before COVID hit. Its opening moments, in which siblings settle in at their New Hampshire getaway, calls to mind the ad campaigns that started running mid-pandemic, showing loved ones reuniting in cozy and suitably isolated vacation rentals. As that picture-perfect veneer rapidly dissolves, the play’s depiction of family members ricocheting off one another in close quarters may well trigger lockdown flashbacks.
Daughters was in rehearsals when COVID shut everything down in March 2020. “I still have not unpacked my rehearsal bag from that process,” Greenidge admits, adding with a laugh, “I hope there’s no snacks in there.” On a serious note: “It took a long time to acknowledge the trauma of that last week in the rehearsal room, but it also ended up being a gift to have more time to write.” She added details to quickly establish the play’s setting in COVID times. More subtly, the hiatus let her explore how the crucible of the pandemic shutdown would intensify her characters’ questioning of their life choices and relationships.
“Kirsten had written something that was prescient in terms of how people approach the work of being a human,” Senior says. “We all got thrust into the moment, but I think the characters were there ahead of us.”
The double-edged nature of home and family is a throughline of several prior Greenidge plays, including Familiar, Milk Like Sugar, and Bossa Nova. Another work she premiered at the Huntington in 2012, The Luck of the Irish, displayed her knack for placing such stories in historical context. Set in the 1950s and the present day, that play was inspired by her grandparents’ experience buying a house in the suburb of Arlington, Mass., at a time when Black home buyers seeking to move into predominantly white neighborhoods often had to pay white couples to pose as buyers on their behalf.
Luck of the Irish director Melia Bensussen saw in Greenidge an ideal partner for a related project she wanted to tackle: an adaptation of Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, the Pulitzer-winning 1985 book by J. Anthony Lukas. A work of extensively researched nonfiction, it is built around the stories of the African American Twymons, Irish American McGoffs, and “Yankee” Divers. The book also gives a detailed account of how the city’s political and social structures became entrenched over decades, escalating into crisis in the 1970s over a court-ordered plan to bus students between schools in racially divided neighborhoods.
To narrow down which parts of Lukas’s text to dramatize would be in itself an ambitious assignment. But the title Common Ground Revisited signals that the production premiering at the Huntington this May isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Greenidge’s script, originally commissioned by ArtsEmerson and developed with Bensussen over the course of more than a decade, symbolically places Common Ground on the shelf among other texts—including material about Black activists not covered in depth by Lukas, and excerpts from interviews Greenidge and Bensussen conducted with their Boston-based ensemble of actors.
“I love this book, probably because I’ve lived inside it now for a long time,” Greenidge says. “But it is one person’s decisions about how to interview, and what to place on paper. The worry is that when many, many people read Common Ground and feel it’s definitive, the only take on busing, that is heading into dangerous territory.” She also points out that in a city with plenty of reckoning still to do about race and inequity, it’s not just about getting the history right. “What we’ve honed in on is: As vast as this book is, what does it still have to teach Boston, and what conversations are still left to be had?”
In Bensussen’s view, Greenidge is doing the hard work of finding “the nuances and the bridges” in our polarized society. “I would not consider her a quote-unquote ‘political’ playwright,” Bensussen says. “She is a playwright who captures the humanity of everyone involved in a story, no matter how dark or challenging the material. In both Luck of the Irish and Common Ground, it would be very easy to find villains. Instead, in both cases, there is such a kaleidoscopic view of reality, and so much empathy for everybody’s position on an issue.”
Common Ground Revisited returns several times to a scene between Cassandra Twymon and Lisa McGoff, a Black student and a white student wrapping up their time at Charlestown High School after two turbulent years of busing. They have multiple versions of the same conversation, each iteration fumbling toward a more honest and genuine connection. The encounter doesn’t appear in Lukas’s book. Greenidge explains, “I wanted to give some options about other ways we could imagine Boston. There could have been other outcomes. We could live in a city where both of those students get the education that they deserve.”
Greenidge has a full slate of projects in progress. Some are set in the past: One Penny Down, a loose adaptation of Anna Karenina with a Black protagonist; Roll, Belinda, Roll, for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions series, about Belinda Sutton, a formerly enslaved woman who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for her pension; and Little Row Boat, or Conjecture, about a teenaged Sally Hemings in the household of Thomas Jefferson, which was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre and received the Roe Green Award from Cleveland Play House. Others are contemporary: an as-yet-untitled piece about a mother and daughter during the pandemic for Boston’s Company One, where Greenidge is a longtime resident playwright; a musical version of Lauren Sandler’s nonfiction account of a homeless young mother, This Is All I Got, directed by Lorin Latarro; and Beacon, about a woman opening a restaurant, commissioned by Playwrights Horizons and developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
“I try to make sure there’s a reason for doing any project,” Greenidge says. After seeing August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Huntington as a 12-year-old, she realized what she wanted to do with her writing: to “make sure there are roles for people of color, particularly Black people, and that they are roles that have an entire journey.” A 2014 commission from the Big Ten Theatre Consortium to create complex roles for young women—leading to her play Baltimore, about racial tensions on a university campus—further developed her thinking about what constitutes a satisfying character arc.
Lately, she says, she feels her mission shifting toward writing more roles for older actors, and older female-presenting Black actors in particular. “In this moment of reckoning there are a lot of opportunities right now, because people are rethinking what’s on our stages. I think there’s still a long way to go. But there’s a whole generation who didn’t get those roles in their 20s and 30s, and weren’t doing their work during a time of reckoning. I have a lot of respect, and I want more work, for those actors who were always the nurse or stuck in the chorus, or gave it a go as a profession and then had to do something else because there weren’t enough roles that they wanted to play on the stage.”
Nicole Estvanik Taylor (she/her) is a former managing editor of American Theatre.
Creative credits for production: The Luck of the Irish by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Melia Bensussen, with set design bt James Noone, costume design by Mariann Verheyen, lighting design by Justin Townsend, and music composition/sound design by David Remedios
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