Malachy McKenna, a handsome, well-built Irish actor and play-wright, is having dinner at a sidewalk cafe in Toronto, a long way from his home in Tipperary, Ireland—and several worlds away from the Ontario tobacco fields where he spent his summers in the early 1990s. But his face lights up when he talks about the dirty job of harvesting tobacco. Alter a days work—riding a lowlying harvester pulled by a tractor and stripping the fleshy, tar-laden leaves from the bottom of the plants up—his back was usually sore, his hands were coated in a black resin and he was physically spent. But he admired the hardworking, down-to-earth farmers, and fondly recalls trips to town on pay day. “Wed all pile into the back of a pickup like the Beverly Hillbillies to do laundry and buy groceries,” says McKenna, now 34. “Afterward, wed each buy a case of beer and head back to the bunkhouse.”
The town, of course, was Tillsonburg, population 14,160, a centre of southwestern Ontario’s tobacco country and a place made famous by the Stompin’ Tom Connors tune (“Tillsonburg, my back still aches when I hear that word”). Stompin’ Tom drew on personal experience when writing his song about tobacco picking, and McKenna also found inspiration in the harvest. He used his recollections of bunkhouse camaraderie to write a play called Tillsonburg, which attracted sellout crowds to Dublin’s Focus Theatre during a threemonth run last fall. This week, Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company mounts the first production on this continent, with McKenna playing the lead role of Donal (Digger) Hogan, who is trying to patch up his friendship with a fellow Irish student.
In the spring of 1989, while he was studying English and history at University College in Galway on the west coast of Ireland, McKenna saw an advertisement for summer jobs picking tobacco in Ontario. He decided he’d give it a try, and promptly tore down all the notices posted on campus to ensure there would be a spot for him. The work was extraordinarily hard, but he enjoyed it so much that he returned for seven more summers. “I always knew the bunkhouse would be a great setting for a play,” McKenna recalls. “I said to myself after my first or second year, ‘I’m going to write a play about this.’ ”
But nearly nine years elapsed before McKenna put pen to paper. He took a postgraduate degree in journalism and communications, worked briefly in public relations and studied acting at The Focus Theatre. One night in the fall of 1999, after watching a not-so-good production at the theatre, he told himself he could write a better play. Two months later, the first draft of Tillsonburg was finished. The play, featuring McKenna as Digger Hogan, premiered last October at the Focus and earned rave reviews. It was an exhilarating experience, McKenna says, except for one small thing—he had to pass up a part in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which was being shot simultaneously in Rome. “I had auditioned the previous spring, but never heard back,” he says. “If anyone had told me I was going to turn down Martin Scorsese I would have said they were nuts.” But the play has provided a huge boost for McKenna’s career. In June, he won the Stewart Parker Trust New Playwright Bursary, an important Irish literary prize. He’s had discussions with Irish director John Lynch about turning the work into a movie. Meanwhile, the play has attracted considerable attention in tobacco country. McKenna’s former employer, Marius Vanbesien, and his wife, Maryanne, plan to attend opening night. Tillsonburg mayor Irv Horton says the theatre is setting aside tickets for local residents on the last weekend in October, and as many as 500 people are expected to attend. “There’s hardly a family in this area that hasn’t been involved in the tobacco industry,” says Horton. “My wife and I both picked tobacco 50 years ago when we were teenagers, and the harvest helped put my kids through university.”
But the industry is experiencing big changes. Many farmers have turned to other crops because high tobacco taxes and the anti-smoking movement have put a dent in consumption. Those who have stuck with tobacco are rapidly switching to mechanical harvesters. “I went back down to the farm recently and saw one of these new machines,” says McKenna. “Here’s this big thing that can pick three times as much in a day as a crew of six, and we broke our backs doing it.” Manual picking may disappear, but McKenna’s play— like Stompin’ Tom’s song—will continue to remind people of the bad old days.
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