She has taken lessons in Irish step dance at a school in South Boston. She has tested her jokes on the staff in her Senate office and family at home. An aide has pored over videotapes of past hosts, studying their moves like a football coach preparing for the big game.
Senator Linda Dorcena Forry says she wants to uphold, not upend, tradition when she takes the stage March 16 as the first woman, first Haitian-American, and first Dorchester resident to host the storied St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in South Boston.
Yet Dorcena Forry also made clear she wants to put a fresh stamp on the 70-year-old breakfast and raise the profile of a historic political roast that in recent years seems to have lost some of its luster.
The stage and the musical acts have been redesigned on her orders, and she promises the convention center in South Boston will be filled with a more diverse crowd than in past years, drawn from her multiethnic district, which includes South Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
Dorcena Forry, 40, confesses to some anxiety about her debut as emcee of a slugfest that was for decades led by Irish-American men from South Boston, including legendary figures such as William M. Bulger, the powerful and cutting former Senate president.
“Obviously, it’s pretty intense, a little nerve-wracking,” Dorcena Forry said. “But I’m OK. . . . And I do believe this event has always had the notion that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and I think that’s what people are going to see. My hosting it is just the next logical step in that concept.”
Governor Deval Patrick, who last year skipped the event and sent in a videotaped skit, is planning to attend. Dorcena Forry said she is also working with the governor to try to persuade his friend, President Obama, to call in during the breakfast.
A call from the White House was once a common occurrence at the event, a mark of South Boston’s prominence in the political world. But it has been 10 years since any president picked up the phone.
Dorcena Forry’s ascension to the shamrock-speckled stage has been interpreted as a sign of Boston’s shift from a parochial, old-world town dominated by tribal politics to a multiethnic city with a changing power structure.
It was preceded, however, by a tussle that some say harkened back to the Boston of old, when City Councilor Bill Linehan, last year’s emcee, refused to relinquish hosting duties, arguing the breakfast should be led by a politician from South Boston.
Others contended that Dorcena Forry was the rightful host, since the breakfast has been led by the occupant of her Senate seat since the 1940s.
After most of Boston’s political establishment sided with Dorcena Forry, Linehan relented. This month, he announced that he would skip the breakfast and march instead in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Limerick, Ireland.
“I say the show goes on,” Dorcena Forry said with a shrug. “I wish him the best over there.”
By all accounts, Dorcena Forry is nothing if not prepared for her turn as ringleader of the roast. She said she began planning the event in October. She has raised $70,000 toward a goal of $100,000 to produce the show. The Dropkick Murphys have been booked. And those Irish stepdancing lessons she took? They will be used in a videotaped comedy sketch.
Last Sunday, she spent several hours at Sullivan’s hot dog stand on Castle Island, filming skits with Representative Stephen F. Lynch and former state senator Jack Hart, two previous hosts. They were joined by state Representative Nick Collins, who lost to Dorcena Forry in last year’s state Senate race and had backed Linehan’s bid to retain the breakfast hosting duties.
“I think she will be great,” Lynch said. “She’s been obsessive about making sure she’s prepared, and that shows you she respects the responsibility she’s been given and wants to do a good job.”
Plus, he said, “She’s a hoot.”
In some ways, Dorcena Forry said, it is not that much of a stretch for her to take center stage at the show. Her husband, Bill Forry, the editor of the Dorchester Reporter, is Irish-American. They have four children, and the family celebrates Irish culture. She has traveled to Ireland three times.
If there is any part of the event that makes her uncomfortable it is the inevitable moment when some politician pushes the roast too far. She is aware her ethnicity and the controversy surrounding her hosting duties might make her one of the easiest targets on stage.
“Everyone is open to get jabbed,” she said. “So I’m getting ready for my jabbing moments when folks get the mic. But I don’t get to give them the hook like the Apollo Theater.”
She had a plea for her fellow politicians.
“Be kind!” she said. “But be funny. Don’t be mean. Don’t be mean. That’s the only thing I hope, that people aren’t mean. That would be bad.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.