Two men, Tommy and Petesy, stand on a stage. They’re side by side, but an ocean apart. Tommy’s a boxer in New Haven who’s taken a couple punches. Petesy is a tall man whose life in Belfast, Northern Ireland has made him smaller. They’re cousins who grew up seeing each other now and again. But they’re writing each other now because they’ve both lost a son to violence, and neither of them knows exactly how to go on.
That’s the premise of Fathers Without Sons, a play by Saul Fussiner and Donal O’Hagan. Its searing story reflects the writers’ concerns with digging below the politics surrounding violence — whether it be ethnic conflict or police brutality — and reaching the level of the personal, where people are just trying to make sense of it all, and figure out what to do about it, for themselves, for those they love, and in the process, maybe for society.
Fussiner teaches at New Haven Academy and is a storyteller, screenwriter, and playwright. New Haven Academy’s curriculum is structured around a program called Facing History and Ourselves. As Fussiner put it, the program “has students study the most difficult histories — the Holocaust, the Reconstruction Era, South Africa, Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide — as a way for them to look at issues of injustice, separation, judgment, reconciliation and social action not just in history, but also in their own lives.”
O’Hagan is a teacher and playwright who was born in and currently works just outside of Belfast. He lived through one of the histories that the students at New Haven Academy studied: the conflict in Northern Ireland, which officially ended in 1998.
Fussiner and O’Hagan met in 2014 when a grant allowed O’Hagan and two other teachers from the Belfast area to visit New Haven Academy and see how the school operated. “My teaching background had been in London and Paris and the pedagogy had been very progressive and the environment very multicultural and very intellectually engaged,” O’Hagan wrote. “When I came back to Northern Ireland in 2003 I did so with the hope that I would be able to put my shoulder to the wheel of change and the building of a better society…. When I came across Facing History and had the opportunity to spark up the imagination I was ready to jump right in.”
Karen Murphy, director of international programs at Facing History, knew that Fussiner and O’Hagan were both writers in addition to teachers, and suggested they meet and create a project together. The two hit it off when O’Hagan visited. During the visit, Fussiner related, “one of my students who had been studying the Troubles — himself from a violent neighborhood — asked Donal how he could live in a place that was so violent.”
Similarly, O’Hagan was struck by the difference between the United States before his eyes and the United States as seen from Ireland.
“America happens in your front room,” O’Hagan said, through the news. But usually, “you don’t really get to talk to someone in the movie you’re watching.”
“I thought about how we always see our own surroundings in a nuanced way while seeing foreign places as violent,” Fussiner remembered thinking during that 2014 visit.
The two teachers knew they would work well together, and kept in touch. It was unclear how they might collaborate. But “in the summer of 2016, we came up with an idea,” Fussiner wrote — to “look at the impact of violence on people,” as O’Hagan put it. “We’re both fathers,” he said. “We could write about two fathers who have lost a child.” In so doing, they could get beneath the politics and dig into the themes of fatherhood and manhood. What does it mean to a father when he can’t save his son?
“I would write from the perspective of an American who has lost his mixed-race son in a police action. At this point, he turns to his cousin in Northern Ireland — who has lost his own son in sectarian violence — to try to find something: understanding, or solace, or escape to childhood memories. Donal would write from the perspective of the Irish man.”
They did their writing by email. Fussiner wrote first, as Tommy. O’Hagan wrote back as Petesy. They took turns, staying in character. By November 2016, they had a complete first act of a play, made up of letters between the two characters, corresponding and connecting across a gulf of space and time. They have a shared, horrible experience. “Yet their suffering is distinct,” O’Hagan said. “How do you get over your suffering?”
Writing about such a theme meant running a fine line between preachy and pat. “We both had humility about the subject matter,” O’Hagan said. “We know people who have been victims of violence, and you’ve got to handle with care.”
In avoiding easy answers, they came face to face with some hard possibilities regarding whether real recovery is possible. In Northern Ireland, “at the moment there’s peace,” O’Hagan said, but also “a lot of conflicted hearts and minds” on both sides. “The longer the peace is going on, the more they’re able to look at each other, and maybe they just don’t like each other.” Some people are “quite happy with social apartheid.”
That’s a sobering prospect for those looking to heal the wounds of centuries of fighting. But Fussiner and O’Hagan didn’t have their characters give political speeches. “It’s about fathers and memory more than anything else,” Fussiner said. And in keeping the play personal — the script focuses much less on the circumstances of the sons’ deaths and much more on the fathers’ ways of grieving — it offered something like a way forward. As Tommy and Petesy begin to talk to each other, their conversation is a way for each of them to step back for a moment, reflect on what they’ve gone through, and open up. “A door is ajar” to hope, O’Hagan said.
It was a promising start. But both playwrights knew the play needed a second act. It needed to involve them meeting face to face. It also needed to involve Tommy’s wife Marcie, an African-American woman facing her own grief — and dealing with it very differently.
“For a long time, we stumbled at writing Act Two scenes,” Fussiner wrote. O’Hagan agreed. “The play itself sat outside the station,” he wrote.
Then, in August 2017, Fussiner was able to visit O’Hagan on a Fund for Teachers grant to study in Ireland and Northern Ireland. He stayed with O’Hagan’s family for a few nights. They did an informal reading of what they’d written so far for one of Fussiner’s colleagues and O’Hagan’s wife. “My adolescent son fell asleep during it,” O’Hagan joked.
But hearing what they’d written and talking about it gave them ideas for what might happen in Act Two. One scene would involve Petesy traveling from Belfast to New Haven as an attempt to reach out to Tommy in his grief — at Marcie’s request — and what might transpire when they meet. The next scene would involve both of them visiting Tommy, who has become estranged from Marcie, after he seeks justice for his son’s death. O’Hagan wrote most of the first scene. Fussiner wrote most of the second scene. Though they still worked together.
O’Hagan has obtained a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to visit Fussiner in February and finish the play. They are looking to have two professional readings done during that week. Meanwhile, O’Hagan has reached out to a theater in Belfast that produced an earlier play of his, and Fussiner and O’Hagan sent the first act of Fathers Without Sons to the Irish Repertory Theater in New York. The company asked to see Act Two; the playwrights are now waiting for a response.
The play “should have wings,” O’Hagan said, “we hope.”