Joe Coffey
Joe Coffey in Bulger Boys

In his one-man solo play Bulger Boys, Joe Coffey seeks to understand the personal motivations of one of Boston’s most famous sons: crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who lead Boston’s Winter Hill Gang in the 1970s and ’80s.

Coffey wrote and stars in Bulger Boys. Taking place in the winter of 1984 in Boston, it tells the origin story of the Bulger brothers: Whitey, the gangster, and his brother, former Massachusetts State Senate president William “Billy” Bulger. In Coffey’s reimagining of true events, Billy reveals secrets about Whitey and his broken relationship with their father, James.

A Boston native, creating a solo play has been a dream of Coffey’s ever since he was in college at Stonehill in 2005, when his professor took him to see I AM MY OWN WIFE, a solo play written by Doug Wright performed at the Wilbur Theater.

“About two years ago, something snapped inside me and I got excited about revisiting the idea of doing a solo play. So I started to think about stories that I was still curious about and were maybe relatable to me and where I came from. The Bulger family of South Boston has always fascinated me. Growing up in Boston, I’d heard some horrific tales about Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang of the ’70s and ’80s,” Coffey told MovieMaker.

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“I’m of course familiar with most of the films and books done about him and the unjustifiable crimes he committed. But I wanted to go deeper. What was driving him? Were there incidents from his youth that shaped him into the sociopath he became? How did his actions affect members of his own family? With this play being an origin story, I focus more on what formed Whitey’s psyche and the family dynamic – particularly the relationship between him, his brother, Billy, and their father, James.”

The hourlong play will continue run at Hollywood Fringe where it made its premiere last month throughout the rest of July on each Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Eastwood Performing Arts Center. It will also run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the performance arts festival in Scotland, from Aug. 3rd to Aug. 10th.  

More on Whitey Bulger and Joe Coffey’s Bulger Boys

After years in organized crime, Whitey Bulger went into hiding in 1994. He successfully evaded the authorities for almost two decades while living under a fake name with his girlfriend in California. He was caught in 2011 at the age of 81, tried in 2013, and was convicted of 11 murders as well as racketeering, money laundering and extortion. He was given two consecutive life sentences and was ultimately beaten to death by other inmates in prison in 2018.

Coffey did 18 months of extensive research in order to do justice to such a famous true story.

“I learned that it can’t hurt to just ask. So I did. I reached out to people I assumed would hang up on me or not respond to my emails. I think with Whitey’s death in 2018, people were more willing to share a story or two. I spoke with trusted sources whose names will never be disclosed,” he says.

“I also read a lot – period specific news articles, books about the family, Whitey, Boston’s political and social climate during that time. I became very accustomed to the musty smell of libraries and dark parking garages. And lastly, I walked. I walked around Southie when I would visit home – not for a specific house or landmark – just to be there. Smells, sounds, colors – these things can of course help enhance the story’s environment and bring more authenticity to the people.”

But most of all, Coffey wanted to understand why Whitey did what he did. He wanted to get to the heart of the man himself.

“I think the challenge with this story was trying to figure out what Whitey wanted. I have an idea, and it goes deeper than power, money and even legacy. This story is my interpretation of what I think his insatiable desire was, what drove him,” he says.

“I take some artistic liberty, but I would say overall this story is rooted in truth. It has heart.  And I think perhaps more than surface-level, fast-food entertainment, that’s what people want to experience. I hope I bring a sense of that to this play.”

Main Image: Joe Coffey in Bulger Boys