Two years ago, The Guardian published a column: “Gingerism is real but not all prejudices are equal to one another”. According to red-haired author Ally Fogg, it’s deeply flawed to compare that model of bullying with other systems of prejudice such as sexism, racism and homophobia. But how far removed is it?
Drawing on a case of false abduction last year centring on the hair colour of a Roma child, playwright Noelle Brown astonishingly shows that ‘gingerism’ and racial violence can go hand in hand.
Her clever new play for Verdant Productions begins with Mark (a benevolent Mark Fitzgerald) slowly revolving in solemn spotlight to the gentle cooing of composer and guitarist Sarah Kinlen, her lyrics funnily sympathetic: “Your genes may be in recession / but so is the economy … You can be seen from space”. He details his happy existence as an Irish redhead in New York, mistaken by locals for Glen Hansard or Ed Sheeran, an exotic object of good luck and charm. However, upon reading a newspaper article about a Danish sperm bank turning away red-haired donors, he’s suddenly conscious to the increasing scale of prejudice towards his kind.
Director Oonagh Murphy intelligently plays the action in the traverse, across a floor strewn in decaying yet vibrant auburn leaves in Maree Kearn’s rich set design. At each end of the playing space, microphones are positioned where the wry Sorcha Fox often channels the trolls of ‘ginger chatrooms’ who bait the “famous red temper” with an apathetic “LOL”.
Brown cast herself as a detective in a search for her own birth mother in her last play Postscript, and writes Mark as a similar investigator, trying to track down the only other red-haired child from his school days. Her flare for the genre shows: a sophisticated structure makes events difficult to anticipate. Murphy measures the reveals to powerful effect, such as when a playground taunt (“Annie … Beaker … Pippi Longstocking …”) takes on a different incorrectness (“Knacker”).
Mark’s childhood peer is a traveller, and his search for her leads to a bizarre situation involving the police and her husband Michael, who, in the articulate figure of actor Michael Collins, dispels some of the myths surrounding the community. Responding to an attack on his identity based on his settled residential situation, he asks: “Does an Irishman who works in England for 20 years become any less Irish?”. Signs of marginalization are sensibly brought to the fore, from the neglect of law authorities to intervene in crimes to the humiliation of being barred from a restaurant or pub. Yet, it is also a celebratory account of a community, their luck devices and pastoral autonomy, as enshrined in a beautiful song framing the starry night sky as Christmas fairy lights.
From a shocking scene of confrontation between police and traveller, poignantly measured over the delicate hum of Denis Clohessy’s sound design, we realise where Irish hang-ups on hair-colour and racial profiling unfortunately coincide. Further disturbing is where they combine as a prerogative in law-keeping. Browne’s call for solidarity is even more timely considering the opposition to rehousing the survivors of a fire at a Traveller halting site in Dublin earlier this month.
For redheads, things are far from coming up roses.