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They Will Survive In her new play "Rock Doves," Marie Jones depicts some tough Belfasters who've stayed alive by their wits. She knows whereof she writes.
It may sound like a rock musical with peace on its mind, but in fact Rock Doves, whose title is a common name for pigeons, is another lively, gritty play about life in Northern Ireland from Belfast's Marie Jones (Stones in His Pockets, A Night in November), which opens at Irish Arts Center on Sept. 16.

"I grew up in urban Belfast, and the only birds that we ever see are pigeons," says Jones, who sees those birds' hardiness as a good metaphor for the people of her war-torn country. " 'Rock doves' is a good name for the people in this play, who have continued to survive in the harshest conditions possible."

On the surface, of course, life in Northern Ireland has gotten appreciably better in the last few years.

"The economy is doing brilliant, house prices are soaring," Jones effuses. "Suddenly there's a new hotel everywhere you look."

Indeed, with a final troop withdrawal just last month marking the end of British rule over the island's northern half, one wonders if Jones has felt herself put in a position similar to that of Athol Fugard in post-apartheid South Africa: With the central political conflict that fed her drama officially over, would she have trouble finding subjects? Not a chance.

"For people living in non-polarized areas, those changes are for real," Jones says. "But there's still sectarianism, and deep down people still have a journey to make. We have to live side by side in a very small country."

For some, the world has been even smaller.

"A lot of people grew up in areas controlled by one side or the other," says Jones, herself a non-religious Protestant. "There are communities that are still essentially under siege by their own people, because those guys who had power all those years can't relinquish power. And in the last few years we've seen drugs and prostitution, all controlled by those forces."

Indeed, in what might be called the Mafia Dilemma, communities ghettoized or otherwise isolated from "official" lines of authority tend to see alternative means of enforcement--and exploitation--crop up. "Structures that were set up to protect communities become instrumental in destroying them," Jones says. "And will these people ever come out of that? These are people that time has forgotten."

Lest it all sound unremittingly grim, let's not forget the Irish gift of gab and humor, which were abundant in Jones' previous plays and which, she promises, are part of Rock Doves--though she puts it in a characteristically upside-down way: "Without tragedy there'd be no humor in our lives."

There is one way Rock Doves departs from Stones in His Pockets and Night in November, in which one or at most two actors brought a whole town to life.

"This is my first big grown-up play," Jones says of Rock Doves, in which four actors play just four actors. "I do love all those multi-character plays. Actors love doing plays like that, and audiences love to see an actor switching in a nanosecond from a guy to a woman."

In Rock Doves, which is directed by Ian McElhinney (a Tony nominee for his direction of Stones), only one character does such a gender switch--and that's because he's a cross-dresser. The others who gather in a derelict building for the play's duration are all outcasts in different ways: In addition to the cross-dresser, there a prostitute, a "knacker" (a butcher of cut-rate meat) and a hopped-up teen who still thinks the old Protestant/Catholic war is on.

"These are characters who have to use their wits to survive," Jones says. "They don't have money or jobs like other people."

Jones is a unique Irish product in two ways: She comes from a Protestant background and she's a woman, neither of which made a life in the theatre a likelihood.

"We were never encouraged to do anything like that," Jones says. "We were encouraged to go into industry, and follow the Protestant work ethic of I am what I own."

Apart from this attitude, Jones says her family had no special feeling for their English heritage, and that "nobody cared about the kings and queens of England."

A generational reality might have helped her in the direction of the stage.

"In the mid-'50s, when we were kids, we didn't have television. I had 10 sisters and brothers, and we all lived very close together. Storytelling was very big in our family; it was ingrained in me before I knew it. I'd sit and listen to my mother and three aunts. I loved their stories."

When Jones finally attnded the theatre, "I couldn't get anybody to come with me. But as soon as I walked in, it was like a spiritual experience--I knew then, this is where I'll spend the rest of my life." And she has, working as an actor, director, writer and theatre founder (the Charabanc Theatre Company, the Double Joint Theatre Company).

"Not very many people I grew up with are doing what I do, and to get away from what your peers are doing is a hard thing to do. But by the time I was about 15 or 16, I just knew that I had to do it."

Indeed, she sounds roughly as determined as the tough cases she writes about in Rock Doves.

You can find tickets to Rock Doves here.