OXFORD – An Irish story written in Mississippi will travel to New York this month.
The trip had its start in 2001, when George Kehoe and his wife, Deborah, went to Ireland.
“We went right after Sept. 11,” said Kehoe, an Oxford resident who teaches at the University of Mississippi. “You can imagine the atmosphere.”
He started reading a book about Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army volunteer who died after a hunger strike while in prison in 1981.
“I became enthralled by him,” Kehoe said. “I saw the dramatic potential.”
After a few starts and stops, he finished “Hungry” in 2007. It blends original writing with Sands’ prison writing.
Christopher Schager, founder of the O’Conner Theatre Project, directed and produced the play in Oxford in the spring of 2008.
“I got started with this play because it’s good. It’s tight,” said Schager, head of the Theatre Division at Northeast Mississippi Community College. “I’ve never worked on anything quite like it.”
After its debut in Oxford, “Hungry” was submitted to a variety of theater festivals. It’ll be staged during the 13th New York International Fringe Festival, Aug. 21-25.
“It’s very exciting. Schager and all of the people involved are serious theater folks,” Kehoe said. “What’s gratifying is that hard, patient work over a long period of time is culminating into something that’s a very good thing for a lot of people.”
Kehoe, Schager, actor Alex Mauney and stage manager Allyson Cartwright have been trimming the two-hour play to 90 minutes so it will fit the festival’s guidelines.
“We’ve considered everything,” Cartwright said. “How do we break it down? How do we get it to the bare minimum?”
It helps that the one-man play is set in a prison cell, where Sands doesn’t have much more than a blanket and a mattress.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to get a mattress in New York,” said Cartwright, a senior at Ole Miss.
The original production had special lighting effects, as well as recorded sounds that gave “life” to invisible guards and prisoners.
“We’re trying to decide what stays and what goes,” Cartwright said.
In Oxford, the slimmed-down version of “Hungry” will be presented at 7 p.m. Aug. 14-16 and 2 p.m. Aug. 15-16, at The Amp, 206 Commonwealth Blvd.
“We finish in Oxford on Sunday, leave for New York on Wednesday and we open on Friday,” Kehoe said.
In New York, the play will be staged at the Manhattan Theatre Source, a 55-seat venue.
“It’ll be a small, intimate space,” Cartwright said, “which is good for us because it’s a really personal show.”
It’s also a relevant show, according to the playwright.
“I wrote on it and kind of let it sit for a while until ‘05,” Kehoe said. “The national debate in this country stunned me. We had leaders who were defending the use of torture. I was stunned by that. I went back to work on ‘Hungry.’”
Sands was imprisoned by British forces, and died at the age of 27 after a 66-day hunger strike. Many considered him a hero who was tortured by his captors but didn’t break. Others called him a criminal. More than 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral.
“He was violent. He held people up for money. He was not a saint,” Schager said. “We are not portraying a saint. We’re portraying a man, and the question is, What makes a man do this?”
With permission from The Bobby Sands Trust in Belfast, Ireland, “Hungry” includes some of Sands’ original poetry and prison writings.
“It’s not a play that says, ‘Here’s the answer,’” Kehoe said. “The play wrestles with the questions.”
“Hungry” is a team effort, but Mauney, a recent Ole Miss graduate, will be the one in the spotlight. He said he’s more excited than nervous about the prospect of performing in front of a New York audience.
“I’m really thrilled at being able to take this show to the theater capital of the world,” he said. “It’s been my dream since I was a kid, and I can’t believe it’s about to happen.”
Funds raised during the Oxford performances will help cover the costs of the New York trip.
“If you want a really dynamic history lesson that has a few laughs and maybe a tearjerker or two,” Mauney said, “come to the show. It’s got it all, man.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– What: O’Conner Theatre Project’s “Hungry”
– When: 7 p.m. Aug. 14-16, 2 p.m. Aug. 15-16
– Where: The Amp, 206 Commonwealth Blvd., Oxford
– Tickets: $5/at the door
– Info: (662) 801-8259, www.hungryatthefringe.com
– Extra: The play will be staged at the Manhattan Theatre Source in New York from Aug. 21-25. For tickets, call (866) 468-7619 or visit www.FringeNYC.org
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal