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24 September 1998 Edition

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West Belfast resistance on New York stage

Binlids heads for the States

On the eve of their departure for America, some of the women behind the Justus Community Theatre smash hit `Binlids' - Niamh Flanagan, Ann-Marie Adams, Sue Ramsey, Christine Poland, Orla Adams, Margaret Mooney and Chrissie Keenan - spoke exclusively to An Phoblacht.

The path to America for Justus Community Theatre's play, `Binlids'- a story of West Belfast resistance - is paved with a determination and ingenuity that mirrors the spirit shown by the nationalist community through the last thirty years of conflict.

After its premiere at BIHFE on the Whiterock Road as part of the West Belfast Festival in June 1997, Binlids was brought back this spring by popular demand. In its American re-incarnation, Binlids will be performed from 8-23 October at the Angel Orensanz Theatre, a refurbished synagogue built by radical Jewish refugees in New York's Lower East Side. From the heart of one community to the heart of another.

In America the families of republican prisoners and the Irish community as a whole have given a massive commitment to bring the show to New York. The first two dress rehersals will be public and already local community groups, and especially local black and hispanic youth groups, are buying up tickets.

Binlids owes its origins to a group of women who three years ago worked on a project for International Women's Day under the auspices of Féile an Phobail's community arts development scheme. The group called on Pam Brighton, a professional director with Dubbeljoint theatre company, to help them. They were determined to produce drama ``that would mean something to your next door neighbour, something for ordinary women''. It developed around women visiting political prisoners, ``an issue that pulled all the women in the community together, those who were political and those who weren't''.

The result was an an award-winning play, Just a Prisoner's Wife. It opened in the Republican Felons Club on 8 March 1996, and it was to eventually sell out in Derry, Feile an Phobail, Dundalk and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

On the opening night, it played to a packed audience, and for many of the POWs present it was the first chance to realise what their wives, mothers and children had gone through.

For many in the group it was an intensely personal process, unlocking personal stories; it was the ``buzz'' of stories told not about them but by them, it was ``the way we saw it''. There was also pride, pride in themselves and their achievement.

Winning Belfast City Council's first ever award for Community Arts in partnership with Dubbeljoint, and being selected by NIVT (Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust) as a model of good practice, Justus were left with the need to continue their development. They had gained confidence but also felt they needed to respond to the overwhelming demand from the community.

With all the group holding jobs and/or bringing up children, there were fears about the scale of Binlids and the commitment needed. In was not just producing a play to show the ups and downs of 30 years of struggle and resistance - no mean task in itself - it was the battle for funding and the women's own sense of vulnerability.

During this period Sinn Fein's Tom Hartley was also instrumental in pushing the group forward.

The group credit Pam Brighton with the discipline, faith and artistic vision for helping them all through. The group recall how Pam had them in tears with her determination that they ``could and would do it''.

``Once we started talking, and all the stories started to come, we knew we couldn't let it go. There were so many aspects of the same story. They were our own personal experiences.''

Helped by a grant of £38,000 from the Training for Women Network and the substantial contribution and commitment of time, money and energy from the local community Binlids premiered at Feile an Phobail 97.

The atmosphere and the nerves - none of the women were professional actors - were intense that night. ``It was people from our own community, we were all taking a chance.'' But that night, and every night that followed the community came out to show their support. What they got was a first rate emotional rollercoaster through the events and politics that shaped an entire community.

``The response of the audience was unbelievable. Every single person could see themselves in it, and for the young people it was a re-education. People brought their kids, we gave away free tickets to youth groups, we put on extra matinees. It opened up the debate for a whole lot of people. We were proud of ourselves and proud of them, they were proud of us and proud of themselves.''

It was during the first production of Binlids in July 1997 that Pat Doherty from the New York City Comptroller's office and Congressman Tom Hayden became convinced that the play was not only historically, dramatically and politically important but that it had to be seen outside Belfast. Hayden put Justus in contact with American solicitor, Art McCabe, who then gave an unreserved commitment to bring the play to America.

Despite the daunting task of recreating the entire production and raising a substantial sum of money, the group remained focused and committed throughout.

Thinking back the group still can't believe it and for many they won't until they finally touch down in JFK (the first of them fly to New York tomorrow), they are unanimous in their pride at the achievement. They are also ``proud our history is not being buried and suppressed and proud that the healing process is being instigated by the community.''

As a sign of Binlids' impact the group point to the sister of Father Fitzpatrick, one of the men murdered by the British Army during the Springhill massacre, who approached Justus to thank them for remembering her brother. Binlids is part of the process of giving the victims of state violence their place, it marks the entire nationalist community as survivors.

The final word from Justus - ``Watch this space''.


Binlids runs from 8-23 October
For further information phone (001) 212 307 4100
To purchase tickets on-line:
Group sales can call free in the US on 1877 3682 637

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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