Cast members Deirdre O'Meara, Chakra O’Connor and Sheila O'Keeffe in a scene from the play Anna Livia Lesbia.
The thing about watching Anna Livia Lesbia in the Liberty Hall Theatre in Dublin is the palpable sense that the important stories therein are being delivered to the converted.
The play is a semi-autobiographical account of the life of Joni Crone, a lesbian who publicly came out on The Late Late Show in 1980. The scene is one of the play’s most powerful as director Prin Duignan has the young Crone (played gleefully by Chakra O’Connor) sit somewhat dumb-struck as the original audio of Gay Byrne’s severe and interrogative questioning machine guns in the background, filling the air and the theatre.
During the original television interview, Byrne asked whether her parents thought she was ‘mentally deficient, or sinful or culpably ignorant’. She was used to gay bashing on the streets of Dublin, but never before on live television. (Although in a recent interview with the Irish Times Crone did say she thought Gay was on her side: that he was just asking the questions to which the people of Ireland would have wanted answers.) It was clear, however, that an emotional, preferably tearful, response was the goal. Despite the pressure and her remarkable youth, Crone remained in control throughout. Those young shoulders were carrying a lot of weight and her words were those of the voiceless, the hidden.
The Ireland of that time was a different place. Homosexuality was considered a crime and would be for another 13 years. As the play reveals, Crone emigrated to England to try to find a more tolerable, inclusive, society. Upon her return to Dublin she got involved in the small, underground gay scene in Dublin and worked tirelessly to bring it above ground; into the sunlight from the grubby backrooms of bars in which gay people were forced to congregate, and into the mainstream. And you don’t get any more mainstream in Ireland than The Late Late.
Working as a volunteer on the Lesbian Line helpline at the time, she heard first-hand of the pain and abuse (emotional and physical) and ostracisation that gay people in Ireland were experiencing. Her willingness to articulate those stories and experiences (despite exposing herself and her family to considerable vilification) was an attempt to get Irish society to confront the harm that it was doing to its children, its sisters, its brothers, and neighbours. Homosexuality, a topic that was previously viewed through perverse sexual, religious, or moral prisms, suddenly became human.
The Splodár Threatre Company is to be congratulated for telling this story, but the fullest merit of the production will be dictated by its audiences. The Dublin show proved a celebration of sorts as an audience full of like-minded individuals brought a festive feel to the opening night. Many were celebrating their own journey and Ireland’s over the last 37 years since the airing of that Late Late Show, and rightly so.
However, preaching this gospel to those who, for example, voted no in the recent same sex marriage referendum could handsomely contribute to the conversations that modern Ireland continues to hold on gay rights, while stimulating many more.
You can catch Anna Livia Lesbia in The Backstage Theatre, Longford, on July 5, and Townhall, Galway, on July 7.