A searing portrait of abuse - Mannix Flynn’s one man show ‘James X’ in NYC
'James X' hits the stage in NYC
Flynn had his childhood (and most of his life) stolen from him by the serial abusers of the notorious St. Joseph’s Industrial School in remote rural Letterfrack, Co. Galway.
Opened in 1887 and run by the Christian Brothers, the mountain of evidence concerning sexual abuse and severe physical punishments meted out there was continually dismissed by both church and state in a damage limitation exercise. Authorities still looked the other way, even when evidence suggested the shockingly high number of fatalities of young boys at the school amounted to homicides rather than head colds.
In James X Flynn, who has campaigned against the sexual and physical abuse of the religious orders since the eighties, long before Irish officials took up his call, has elected to deliver a semi-autobiographical account of the actual horrors he experienced, perhaps out of a reflexive need to maintain some distance between himself and what he lived through.
Watching the play, you don’t begrudge him any of the choices he makes onstage, but that’s not to say that James X doesn’t have some thematic inconsistencies that distract rather than illuminate.
A device revealed late in the play turns Flynn into an unreliable narrator, a dangerous development in a play that stands as a testament to social truths.
Although the audience completely understands Flynn’s distancing tactic -- multiple clarifying references to the effect that decades of abuse had on Flynn’s mental health leave us in no doubt -- even so, it’s a disorientating exercise in a play that otherwise leaves no room for misinterpretation.
There are marvelous sequences. Flynn’s portrayal of his own birth is one of the most wildly beautiful and hilarious moments I have witnessed in my theater going life.
He is also particularly good at capturing the banal but chilling sophistries of the agents of the Irish state in the 20th century. Those sequences, where judges preside over the interment of Irish children, are terrifying.
Less engaging, curiously enough, are the details of Flynn’s own broken down family life in Dublin. We’ve been to these overcrowded working class Catholic houses many times before, and although they underline one of the roots of the problem, we already know what to anticipate.
Where James X really takes flight is in Flynn’s note-perfect reproduction the impartial tones of the agents of the state and religious orders. Having had the mirror held up to him his whole life, only to be condemned and cast aside, Flynn finally has the opportunity to hold a bright polished glass up to Irish society itself.
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