Eamonn Baker : What is the story behind your play, The Exodus?
Jonathan Burgess : The Exodus is a fictional creation based on a series of interviews I carried out over a period of six months with Protestant people who had originally lived on the cityside. Their stories have been compressed into and brought to life through the fictional characters of Trevor and Emma, the main characters in the play – a father and daughter living on the cityside in the early 70’s. The play is set against the backdrop of the early Troubles, daily bombings, bomb-scares, shootings, intimidation seen from the perspective of these characters, as I say, a father and daughter, both recently bereaved after the wife/mother had died. The only son is in the RUC, stationed outside of the city.
EB : What is your personal connection to the story and themes of The Exodus?
JB : My connection to the story dramatised here is that I was three weeks-old when my father witnessed the shooting dead of a soldier not far from our front door in Abercorn Road, and he decided that he didn’t want to raise his son in that environment, where he saw things only getting worse. My family had had a lot of connections with the Bishop Street area. My great-grandfather was McIlroy and ran a sweet shop in the 1910’s/20’s. The other grandparents were Finlay and Donnell. They were all from that part of the Bishop Street, Wapping Lane, Dark Lane end of town. By the time my father brought us out, there was only one family left from our tradition in that area and they moved fairly soon after. We moved to Bond Street.
EB : What is your emotional investment in this play?
JB : I don’t want to sound big-headed but I have been offered work all around the world as a theatre practitioner but my commitment has always been to Northern Ireland generally, and to this the city in particular. This story of The Exodus is something I felt compelled to write about because I want to make this city a better place for all its citizens. The story dramatised within the Exodus has been an untold story. I wanted to break that silence. I wanted to put words on it, because I believe this is a story that cannot be ignored if we, as a society, are going to move forward together. What I have noticed since the project started is that there has been a great curiosity from the Catholic community, because by and large that community didn’t notice this situation evolving. Maybe because of that, the perception within the Protestant community is that the situation has been ignored, because how can the displacement of 16,000 people go unnoticed? To turn it back to you, Eamonn, did you notice a significant departure of Protestants from your area during the early years of the Troubles in the city?
EB : As a child and teenager in Creggan I was only aware of a few Protestant families - for example the Wrays in Iniscarn Crescent, the Hunters in Cromore Gardens. I know there were more Protestants in Creggan, especially in Lower Creggan. In fact there was another Baker family, from the Protestant tradition, living in Malin or Leenan Gardens I think. I didn’t have any contact with these families, though my father knew Mister Hunter in Cromore. But I wouldn’t have been aware that these families were moving, getting out or felt they had to get out.
I tend to think that part of the impact of the conflict was that we all went into our shells. We became concerned for our own communities. After internment on August 9th 1971 and then Bloody Sunday in January 30th 1972, I was aware of what was happening in my own community - the hurt, the tragedy, the rage. And hardly aware of what the story was for the other community.
When I saw an extract of the play in the Creggan Healthy Living Centre back in May as part of Community Relations Week, I asked how many Protestant people had in fact left the city side. The Creggan people there, including myself, sought to answer that question. The highest figure that anyone could come up with was 2,000. That means there was more people than me not noticing this large scale demographic change.
None of this feels too good. One of the ways that the play works for me is that it focuses on one family, their very human fears, anxieties and concerns as the Troubles become more intense and bombings and shootings become daily occurrences I got engaged with the humanity of these main characters, the tensions between father and daughter as they sought to face their situation, the mother only dead a short time too.
As an audience member, I was asking myself what would I do in their situation, who would I side with - the daughter who wants to leave and the father who wants to stay. One of the lines that affected me most was when the father says, “We are living here peacefully” and his daughter responds with, “No, daddy, we are living here quietly.” That really got to me.
Many of us living here know both the costs as well as the benefits of living your life keeping your head down, not lifting your head above the parapet. But, as you know, there are people who will go the play and will contest that there was ever intimidation and there will be those who will be saying: “What about Catholics who were intimidated out of the Waterside? What about the burning of Bombay Street, you don’t write about that?”
JB : No I don’t. There has been so much horror and so much hurt that has happened here, that to try and put everything into the sam play and equalise it all, would, to all intents and purposes, have been to neutralise everything. I have been selective, because I am telling an unashamed Protestant story, a story I believe has never been told. I feel that the Protestant community has never had an outlet through the arts to tell its story.
But this is not a play against anyone. It deals with the events that happened to that community in this city and asks the audience to give attention, to listen. It is a human story that deals with loss, the loss of people - neighbours- the loss of place, the loss of community, the loss of places of worship, the loss of ‘home’, and by home I mean the sense of home that these characters carry in their hearts.
I have met people through my interviews and research who left the cityside in the 1970’s and have never crossed the bridge since. This play calls attention to the disappearance of a community from the cityside. When I look around now I see the two Protestant churches in Great James Street, for example, are no longer places of worship. One houses Bedlam indoor market; the other Hamilton’s architects. My mother went to Templemore Secondary School. That site now accommodates St. Mary’s College. These things have gone unnoticed almost within the Catholic community, but these disappearances still resonate greatly within the Protestant community.
EB : What has been the impact on you having initiated this process?
JB : At times it has been tough. I have coaxed memories from interviewees which some people might say were better left alone. Those expressions have informed the honesty of this play and that honesty is very important for me. The Exodus was never written to create a big stick to beat people over the head. It was written to tryto promote empathy and understanding, to help people reach out to each other and to appreciate that reaching out was needed.
EB : What are the strengths and weaknesses of writing, producing and directing this play? Does that level of involvement leave you too close to it ?
JB : I have had the vision of this project for a long time and my ideas have developed over the years. For some projects such involvement would be a weakness, but I know this material and I know the community that it comes from. For this project I trust my own voice – there has never been doubt. Other people may have wanted to dilute what I have said, some may have wanted to make it more aggressive. I wanted to create something that was clearly said and could be clearly heard. I am not looking to undersell this issue, nor do I want create enemies or be antagonistic. I believe I have been careful with this process and I think myself and the team have struck the right note.
EB : Who are the team?
JB : The team are James Lecky, Sorcha Shanahan and Arthur Brown, all residents of the city and super professionals in their craft. We spent a lot of time on the themes of the play, the facts behind it, before we got down to the script, as, maybe to repeat myself, tone was very important. I have tried to protect them, they are paid professionals, they don’t have to ‘buy into’ my vision. And yet I sense that for them too, this is an important piece of work.
Jonathan Burgess is the director of Blue Eagle Productions. Eamonn Baker works for Towards Understanding and Healing.
The Exodus, currently on tour, can be seen at the Millennium Forum on Thursday 29th September at 8pm and tickets can be bought through the Forum Box Office on 7126 4455