Playwright Tracy Ryan and actress Jessica Regan told David Hennessy about Strike!, the play based on the 1984 anti- apartheid strike by employees of Dunne’s Stores in Dublin.
“Some stories, you just have to tell,” actress Jessica Regan says of Strike!
The play showing in London at the moment tells the story of a moment in Irish and South African history.
In 1984 Dunne’s Stores check out worker Mary Manning refused to ring up a South African grapefruit as she had been directed by her union in opposition to the country’s regime of apartheid. When she was suspended, Mary and nine other workers would walk out in protest.
Thinking they would be back to work in two weeks, their strike lasted two years and nine months.
Nelson Mandela would say their strike gave him hope and Archbishop Desmond Tutu wanted to meet with them on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tutu also invited them to South Africa but on arrival they would not be allowed into the country, they were ‘the most dangerous shop workers in the world’.
But the strikers were also derided at the time by their own government and the church.
Playwright Tracy Ryan, originally from east London, found out about the fascinating story on her move to Ireland.
She could not believe no one had ever turned it into a play or something similar.
Tracy told The Irish World: “I was listening to Liveline one day.
“Ben Dunne was actually on the show. They brought on Mary Manning as well- I found out later she didn’t know he was going to be on it- But Ben Dunne was trying to apologise to Mary Manning about the strikes.
“This is 2009, he was trying to apologise for what had happened. She was having none of it.
“She was quite tight lipped.
“I was like, ‘That’s interesting’.
“So I just Googled, ‘Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike’ and it kind of came up with what happened in the 80s.
“It was new to me. Although I would have known about anti- apartheid stuff over here (the UK), I didn’t know about that strike.
“I just read up on it.
“I went, ‘This would make a brilliant play’.
“I checked and nobody else had done it, that was incredible because that’s 25 years after the event and nobody had touched it.
“So I actually rang up Mandate Trade Union and asked them, ‘Can I get in touch with the strikers? I’d like to write a play about the strike’.
“And they said, ‘Well, you need to talk to Brendan Archbold’.
“So Brendan was my first point of contact and he put me in touch with the strikers, and Brendan also had this archive of material: Letters and press clippings and stuff, so he shared that with me as well.
“Once I started talking to strikers, I got a flavour of it and what it was like.”
The play would have its first airings over in Ireland before Ardent Theatre Company would bring it to Southwark Playhouse for its current run.
Tracy says: “I’m delighted it’s got on here because it’s such a fantastic story.
“What they did was amazing. We want to celebrate that.
“It’s really inspirational.
“When I heard about the story I was like, ‘This is incredible’.
“It was massive, I think the fact that Desmond Tutu wanted to meet them and also the fact that they were invited over to South Africa.
“They got thrown out of South Africa because they were seen as too dangerous.
“Mandela spoke about them having an impact.
“He heard about them on Robben Island, it’s amazing.
“When he came to Ireland in 1990, he gave them all gold medals.
“And they were 17 to 23. Vonnie was a little bit older.
“But they were so young.
“Liz was 17 years old when she decided to come out on strike, and they just grew through it.
“They stayed out for so long and that they stuck together and still now they’re a really strong group of people and friends through it all.”
And these were not young social justice warriors or people who were looking for a cause, they knew very little about what was going on in South Africa when they first walked out.
Tracy continues: “They’re very open that they didn’t know much about it at the beginning.
“They’re very honest about that. Karen and Theresa were going to union meetings so they would hear bits.
“The rest of them would probably have heard, ‘free Nelson Mandela’ on the radio.
“They were like, ‘What? What’s apartheid?’
“They were young. They were going to parties so they went on a huge journey personally and I think it changed all of them forever.
“So that journey is really kind of great for us to watch and learn from as well.”
Actress Jessica Regan, who played Niamh Donoghue on BBC’s Doctors, adds: “Their accidental activism then becomes such a power and a force, so there’s no kind of preachiness or righteousness.
“It’s just kind of like they kept choosing to do the right thing.
“It’s a real privilege to play.”
Tracy continues: “I think the strikers always said they wanted people to realise that change is possible and it takes time sometimes and commitment but change can come about.
“And it was hard, Ireland in the 80s was very dominated by the Catholic Church so there was a lot of reason to keep your head down and shut up and also unemployment was very high at the time so to effectively give up your job is huge as well.
“With so many people leaving Ireland if you had a job, you should really keep it so what they did was quite remarkable and extraordinary.”
Jessica adds: “I had a very good friend of mine who rang her mam straight after the show, ‘Did you know about this? Have you heard about this?’
“I think she couldn’t believe that they didn’t do it for themselves.
“They did it for people that they had never met.”
While the strikers got some support, there was also vocal criticism that sometimes came from government or the pulpit.
Jessica says: “These were working class people who, in the eyes of many institutions, were being uppity and were ‘getting ideas above their station’ and that Irish criticism of ‘having notions and looking for notice’.
“The two biggest insults you can lay at an Irish person is having notions and looking for notice and that’s what I think the institutions felt they were doing like, Who the hell did they think they were?”
Tracy adds: “There was some correspondence between the church and the union and they are pretty much saying they should have gone through the right channels, ‘They didn’t ask us first’.”
Have the real strikers seen it and what has been their reaction? “They saw it in Ireland and they loved it,” Tracy says.
“I kind of have rewritten quite a lot since then and they really loved the newer version of it so I was delighted.
“They feel it really captured their time on the picket line.
“Brendan has sadly passed away now but his sons came to see it. They were really pleased with how he’s depicted as well.”
The strike ended in April 1987 when the Irish government banned the importation of South African goods. Coming as a result of public pressure, it was the first ban on South African goods by a western government.
What was it like for Jessica to meet the real Karen Gearon, the shop worker and union rep who led the strike?
“It was just incredible and as an actor, emotional.
“I might never have that experience again.
“She was so funny.
“At one point, we were getting a picture taken and she went, ‘Stop f**king crying’.
“And I was like, ‘Alright, Karen’.
“(She was) exactly like Tracy’s written her.
“I was kind of getting carried away in a moment and she just kept on bringing it back to reality.
“There’s just a strength and a kindness to her and what was really moving- we had a Q and A and someone asked her the question, ‘What inspires you?’ And she was just like, ‘These people. These people inspire me, all through my life they inspired me’, talking about her fellow strikers.
“She was warm and funny and kind and brilliant, just the best and actually, she has said that you (Tracy) can give me her contact details.
“We might go for a coffee and an old walk.
“I have a new friend. If I just stop blubbing in front of her, she’ll tolerate me.
“It was really interesting. They came to two performances.
“The first one was very triumphant and they loved it.
“The second one they actually found very effecting almost seeing their trauma on stage, I suppose.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I can watch that again actually because it just brings up a lot of tough stuff’.
“We’re in week three so we all are just a bit like, ‘God, it’s relentless. The relentlessness of being ignored, undermined’.
“And we’re just playing the parts.
“We’re playing heroes. They are heroes.
“I hope that this continues to find audiences and inspire because I’ve never experienced so my standing ovations.
“I’ve been to New York with movie stars on stage and Oscar winners on stage and I’ve never experienced the standing ovations that we’re getting.
“Everyone just seems to get very emotional about the power of it, ‘This all really happened’.
Tracy adds: “Everybody in the company is really connected to the story and that makes it a very special piece because you can feel that coming through, that it’s more than a play.”
It would have been easier to bring Strike! to the stage with less characters but this would not have told the full story.
“I was asked to cut down the strikers,” Tracy says. “But I couldn’t do that because really, you’re losing their history, their narrative, that would be really unfair.”
Jessica adds: “How can you cherry pick and go, ‘They’re more worthy’.
“But that was a bold move because you would have gotten your play on a lot sooner had you compromised on that and you just didn’t.
“You gave all those women their moment. and that’s really special.
“No one is the whole story.”
“No one is the whole story,” Tracy agress. “I think there would be a picket line outside if I did.”
“I wouldn’t mess with those women,” Jessica jokes. “I wouldn’t get on the wrong side, I tell ya.”
It seems unbelievable now that the strikers were so derided and got so little support from some sections. Jessica says this shows one way things have changed.
She says: “I think now it’s almost frowned upon to not be in some way interested in sustainability or human rights.
“I think people who have their heads in the sand about these things, that is seen as out of mode so times have really changed in 40 years since the strike.
“It’s 40 years next year.
“The strikers absolutely hate it when you mention that even though they all look super young.
“We couldn’t get over it considering they’ve been out in all weathers for two years, nine months.”
The strikers had to survive on just £21 a week strike pay for the entirety of the stand they took.
“When you look at the documentaries what I found very poignant is you can see them getting thinner and thinner.
“And you’re just like, ‘These poor women, and Tommy’.”
Tracy agrees, “They really did put so much on the line.”
Talking to the strikers, Tracy was able to incorporate real life details about those days such as using plastic bags to keep their rain out of their shoes.
Although it is all rooted in the true story, there is a need for some artistic license.
“The strikers gave me those little moments like the plastic bags and how they felt about making speeches, all those little moments help to create the scene.
“But there is some fictionalisation.”
One character in the play is Nimrod Sejake, a black South African trade unionist who once shared a cell with Nelson Mandela and who sought exile in Ireland.
In the play Nimrod, played by Mensah Bediako, describes being told of Ireland the country ‘where white people oppress other white people’ and that South Africa was like a pint of Guiness with the white on top and the black majority kept down below it.
Tracy continues: “For example, I would have never met Nimrod.
“Nimrod had passed by the time I started working on it but luckily people had kept his speeches.
“They had kept fragments of memories of Nimrod.”
Another character is Sinead who initially walks out before changing heart and returning to work.
Tracy says: “And also Sinead, there was quite a few people who went in and broke the picket line but that’s a composite fictionalised character.
“You want to keep the story moving so you’re fictionalising things.
“The strikers were great with that because it’s all based on truth.”
Strike! is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 6 May.
For more information and to book, click here.
For more information on Ardent Theatre Company, click here.