“It is breaking down the traditions,” Jade Jordan says in an interview about the Transatlantic Commissions Program. “I’ve never seen four people, Black or Brown, do something like this. I didn’t have any of that growing up, so I hope it goes further and gives people at home an opportunity to go ‘well, I can do that, too!’”
New York City’s Irish Repertory Theatre and Dublin, Ireland's Fishamble: The New Play Company have joined together to create the Transatlantic Commissions Program, a year-long program aiming to address the historic marginalization of artists of color in the Irish canon. Four Irish playwrights of color have been commissioned for the inaugural group: CN Smith, Felicia Olusanya (also known as Felispeaks), Jade Jordan, and Kwaku Fortune.
The writers will develop new works over the next year under the mentorship of Pulitzer-finalist playwright, actor, and poet Dael Orlandersmith culminating in public readings staged in both Dublin and New York City in early 2023. Through meetings and workshops, Orlandersmith will guide these emerging writers through creating new works to expand the traditionally white Irish theatrical canon.
For Jordan, Orlandersmith’s mentorship will be instrumental to creating works that help the theatrical canon evolve. “I kind of put it out of mind,” Jordan says, “but it is a big task really and it’s important that we get it right. And I guess that’s why it’s over the course of such a long amount of time and why we have such an incredible mentor.”
“I suppose you kind of have to block it out of your mind when you actually sit down to write,” Smith agrees. “You can’t sit down at the keyboard and think ‘what would Beckett think of this?’”
Olusanya thinks differently about how evolution happens. “Naturally, you start using your voice by nature of existing, by virtue of being a marginalized writer. Whatever you create represents you and your community. You’re not speaking for everybody. It’s that this half-Irish, half-Black person or this fully Black person with Irish heritage is speaking their truth and by speaking their truth, they are giving visibility to all of us.”
“I didn’t see any clear ways of getting outside of Ireland and into other theatre spheres,” Olusanya continues. “Being given the opportunity to do that is amazing and being mentored on top of that is awesome. I get to leave Ireland with Irishness and display my artform.” That cross-cultural connection also really attracted Smith into the program as half of his background is American. “The opportunity to apply both sides of my identity within my art is a big draw,” he shares.
The dual nature of the program, which is an attractive aspect to the writers, also presents them with a choice: do they want to or need to consider the international venue change in the writing process? Smith has an answer to that. “I kind of wonder how relevant it is. It’s probably relevant up to a point,” he says, “but we have endless explorations of provincial Russia through Chekhov and the last I checked, no one in Dublin has been there.”
Unlike Smith, Jordan is keeping the location change in mind. “I’m really just trying to think in my head about how to cater for both places,” she explains, “how to make something that will resonate in both Dublin and America. And show Ireland how it was, or how it’s going, or where a person who looks like me sits right now.”
Fortune connected this experience and his hopes for the program with past moments as an actor when he saw or worked with an artist of color. “The more diverse voices you have, the better. Going onto a stage and seeing another Black actor up there has been quite rare, but the few times that it’s happened have been such a joyous thing, a kind of celebration. ‘If they can do it, I can do it’ sort of thing.”
“The more stories we can get from diverse backgrounds will really help. It will help grow the industry,” Fortune says about creating that change. “The Irish story is not just the white Irish people’s experiences. There are so many gorgeous stories out there.”