By Carol Rocamora
Rarely have we been treated to a coming-of-age story that shines a blinding light on an era of history as well as on the life of the narrator.
In the case of Belfast Blues, the magnificent one-woman show written and performed by Geraldine Hughes, that era is called The Troubles, the century-long conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland that came to a dramatic climax in the 1980s with the rise of the IRA and the Hunger Strikes. Many works have been written about this violent, traumatic, tragic chapter in Irish history that ravaged this tiny country and shook the British Isles to the core, but few have reached the power of this extraordinary one-woman show.
Geraldine Hughes wrote Belfast Blues in 2003. She first performed it in New York in 2005 at the Culture Project, directed by Carol Kane, and returned again with it in 2014 at the Barrow Street Theatre. It was subsequently filmed at the Lyric Theatre in Ireland in 2019, before a live audience. And now it’s part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Digital Fall Season of Performance on Screen.
And what a wonder it is! In seventy-three mesmerizing minutes, Geraldine tells her story from birth (1970) to the age of 18. Playing numerous characters, she conjures up the world of rough, working class, Catholic Belfast on an empty stage, against a changing backdrop (Jonathan Christman did the projections). An accomplished actress and mimic, her characters are colorful and vivid, and she morphs from one to the next in the blink of an eye and a twist of the body. She plays her mother Sheila at the moment of her birth (hilarious), her alcoholic father Eamon, the local storekeeper Eddie (my favorite), the stern head mistress of the local Catholic school, and so on. We follow her as her family moves from a tiny row house (5 children in one bed), to a flat in a miserable, rat-infested housing development, to a house on the “Peace Line,” the so-called border between the Protestant and Catholic communities. We watch her take her first communion (she gets sick, and curses God). We watch her selling candy surreptitiously from the flat where her father has opened an illegal “sweet shop.”
And then comes her life-changing moment, when George Schaefer, an American director, comes to Belfast to hold auditions for a film on The Troubles (“Children in the Crossfire”-1984). He casts fourteen-year-old Geraldine, and brings her to Los Angeles for the filming. Subsequently, Schaefer encourages her to enroll in UCLA, and the rest is history (she becomes a professional actress, living in the US). (Note: the title, Belfast Blues, refers to the color of Geraldine’s expressive eyes as well as the troubled times).
Geraldine’s salty Irish humor and marvelous impersonations are wonderfully entertaining, but the tragedy of war-ravaged Northern Ireland looms large throughout the tale. Bullets punctuate her narrative, as the fighting rages. There are many traumatic moments – when, for example, Geraldine witnesses the murder of a child in her neighborhood by a British soldier. There’s the news of the hunger strike in 1981 (Geraldine was only 11), when Bobby Sands and eight other Catholic martyrs died after 66 days (Margaret Thatcher refused to make any concessions).
The revival of Geraldine’s deeply moving story is an inspired choice on the part of the Irish Rep. Given our divided, strife-torn country today, Belfast Blues serves as a cautionary tale in our own troubled times. Wisely, this unforgettable play ends with a dedication “to all the children in the world who are born into conflict.”
Belfast Blues, written and performed by Geraldine Hughes, now streaming through September 27 on the Irish Repertory Theatre website www.irishrep.org