By Joseph Hurley
When three of the women and one of the men who were among the 28 individuals who journeyed from Belfast to New York to bring "Binlids" to Manhattan sat down to talk with a visitor during a rehearsal break, they all produced cigarettes and lighted them up, as did, or so it seemed, everyone else involved in the production of the play. When asked if everyone in Northern Ireland smoked, Brenda Murphy, one of the primary authors of the "Binlids" text as well as one of the most memorable performers, responded with a jovial "Can you blame us?" putting the issue cordially to rest.
Niamh Flanagan, a fine-boned, fine-featured professional researcher, whom some of her "Binlids" colleagues refer to as "the middle class one among us," explained the genesis of the show, which plays on five specially constructed stages at the old former synagogue at 172 Norfolk St. The action frequently spills off the platforms and swirls through the central open space where the mainly standing audience is watching the scrapbook-like events recounted, for the most part, by women who are telling their own stories.
"It originated out of Féile an Phobail," Flanagan said, "which is the West Belfast Community Festival, in 1996, as a contribution to International Women’s Day. The group came together to create something that was original and would impact on people’s lives within the community. We didn’t want it to be a seminar or a conference, and there was a crowd of us sitting together in a room one day, and we decided we’d do a play, something about women in West Belfast. We decided to do something about the experiences of prisoners’ wives."
The result was "Just a Prisoner’s Wife," a modest effort compared with "Binlids," but the launching pad, nevertheless, for the later, more difficult venture.
"Just a Prisoner’s Wife" was an attempt to tell the generally untold stories of what so many West Belfast women endured while their husbands were away. "We contacted Pam," said Bridie McMahon, a solid, affable woman who is the manager of a Belfast liquor store, "and got her involved in it," referring to British-born Pam Brighton, for nine years a resident of Northern Ireland and the director not only of "Binlids" but of the recently reopened "A Night in November" as well.
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"We talked with loads and loads of people in the community and everybody sort of wrote their own parts," Flanagan said.
"Pam had us improvising toward a structure," Murphy said. "If you weren’t actually a prisoner’s wife yourself, you certainly knew them, and probably worked alongside some of them, so you were bound to have a good sense of what they went through on a day to day basis."
"Bridie played a woman who was having trouble with one of her children," said Flanagan, "and I played a greenhorn from the country, who didn’t even know that her husband was involved until he was caught, at which point she was so devastated that she didn’t know whether to stay with him or not."
"Just a Prisoner’s Wife" centered on the stories of just four women, and was delivered mainly in a series of monologues. "The third woman’s husband was in England," added Murphy, "and the fourth one was a kind of tough cookie who’d been through this for 40 years, first with her father, then her husband and then her son."
"Pam found the focus and brought everything together," said Flanagan. Done for the first time on March 8, 1996, "Just a Prisoner’s Wife" won an award from the Belfast City Council in the area of Best Arts Partnership.
"That in itself doesn’t sound like an awful lot," she added, "but, to us, it was a huge achievement, considering that it was a political play coming out of West Belfast. It was the first time that the Belfast City Council had recognized anything of the sort."
Emboldened by the success of the play, a work initially intended for just a single performance, but which the women eventually played 20 times, the group decided to try something more complicated and more ambitious, which, of course, became "Binlids," now brought to the Lower East Side by Brighton’s company, Dubbeljoint Productions, at the JustUs Community Theatre, together with the Irish Arts Center.
Eventually, it became obvious that, in order to tell the story fully, "Binlids" required a male presence, so four professional Belfast actors were hired, with a fifth, an actor from Northern Ireland who happened to be living in the Bronx, added once the troupe reached New York to begin rehearsals for the present stand.
"There was a great deal of research involved, in the way of us going out and talking extensively to people who’d been through all manner of different experiences over the years," McMahon said,
Terence O’Neill, generally known as "Cruncher," chose and arranged the songs heard in the show, some of which he composed. At this point, he joined the group at the table.
"A lot of effort was invested in getting the details right," he said, "so we took the scenes out and tried them on people, to see if the way we’d got things was the way people remembered."
"Pam pushed us all forward," Murphy added.
Since the participants in "Binlids" are working-class people, whether actually employed, or, as is so often the case in Belfast, unemployed, money had to be raised for the expansion of "Just a Prisoner’s Wife" into the effort that eventually transported 28 people from Northern Ireland to New York’s Norfolk Street, with 18 of them performing on stage and the remaining 10 working back stage.
Funding came from a group called the Training for Women Network, from the Belfast City Council, and from the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, but not from the Arts Council, which refused to help.
"They don’t like political drama," said Flanagan.
"But it’s more complicated than that," O’Neill added. "There’s a situation with funding agencies in the Six Counties. There’s a political agenda at work all the time. If it’s perceived that the work is critical of the state, nine times out of 10 you will be refused funding."
O’Neill sees "Binlids" as a form of oral history. "There’s a challenge for recognition involved," he added, "even to the extent of admitting that we even have a story to tell here."
Flanagan added, "We constantly have to keep proving that we’re real and that what we’re doing is authentic, and that we have a place in the scheme of things."
"The people in the government don’t want our story told, partly because they’re ashamed of their own history," McMahon said.
Despite the difficulties involved, Brighton and her cast managed to set four full weeks aside for work on "Binlids," with the people involved paid just enough to enable them to leave their regular jobs for a month.
The men and women of "Binlids" admit that things are improving in Northern Ireland, but they appear to be endlessly aware of the complexity of the overall situation, and they seem never to be totally free of a certain ingrained skepticism.
"Reconciliation is everybody’s goal," said O’Neill, "but if that reconciliation is going to kick in behind the peace, the nationalists are going to have to be listened to. It is a very important component of the whole process, that these anxieties, bad memories, and fears be recognized and released."
"And understood," added Murphy.
"There’s still an impression that the whole republican experience was created by small bands of militant men who went around shooting and bombing," Flanagan said. "It’s often dismissed that way, and that’s not the truth. Actually, it’s a deep and complicated belief involving thousands and thousands of ordinary people. It’s that kind of thing that the unionists will neither accept nor admit."
"Our story is a tale of pain," McMahon said.
"One time," said O’Neill, "the first time I ever saw these women and what they’d put together, before I became involved, I said to an elderly woman who happened to be there, ‘These are extraordinary people,’ and she said, ‘No, son, we’re ordinary people living in extraordinary times.’ "
"Binlids" ends its brief tenure at the Angel Oransanz Foundation Center for the Arts with this Friday evening’s performance.