By DAVID KENNERLEY
The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street has proved that lightning can strike the same spot twice.
Last year, the theater group showcased Bridge and Tunnel, featuring Sarah Jones playing multiple New York City roles and tackling prickly issues with humor. The quirky hit was so popular its slated for a Broadway transfer this spring.
Now, another dazzling one-woman bio-play, Belfast Blues, written and performed by Geraldine Hughes, is electrifying audiences. Billed as one wee girls story about family, war, Jesus and Hollywood, the show recounts Hughes childhood in strife-torn Belfast in the 1970s and 80s.
And like Jones, who found a mentor in Hollywood mega-star Meryl Streep, Hughes has a high wattage benefactor of her ownAngelica Hustonwho, it so happens, just won a Golden Globe for her supporting role in ``Iron Jawed Angels. Wearing simple black jeans and an untucked shirt, the blue-eyed Hughes portrays her young self, and slips effortlessly among 23 other characters, including her parents and neighbors. Against the backdrop of a bleak landscapethe set is by Jonathan Christmanaccented with boulders, barbed wire and projected images, she brings her heartaches and hopes to life.
True to Irish tradition, the 34-year-old actresswho has played countless roles on stage and screenhas a gift for storytelling. She recently turned an a press interview into a mini-show, filled with delightfully arch impersonations that drew on her experience growing up during The Troubles in her homeland.
DAVID KENNERLEY: How did Belfast Blues come about?
GERALDINE HUGHES: I never had any intention of writing anything, but a theater friend heard my stories and said, I have a notion this will make a really great play. I replied, Im not really into one-person showstheyre like a therapy session. But when she got me in front of a mike in a sound studio, something magical happened. Everyone in the room said, Jeepers, you have to do this and it just has to be you. The show was born that day.
DK: Did you keep a diary?
GH: No, except in my brain. I was sort of an odd child, with no group of mates. I would come home after school and look out my Mummy and Daddys window and take note of things. I know it sounds pathetic, but I feared if I went out into that dangerous world I might get lost. I always knew that I never quite fit in and I wasnt meant to stay in Belfast. I was a very old soul.
DK: What was it like performing your first show?
GH: I was about to open in L.A. and Im doubtful, thinking, Ill play this for maybe two of the five weeks I booked the theater for. Who knows? But it really connected with audiences. And boy, oh boy, one of the first shows was right after the Iraq war started. Theres a line, The wee quiet streets are filled with green giants, meaning tanks. And I couldnt get through it, because I thought, Jesus, who is asking the kids over there? They have no say in anything.
But Im of the nature that kids know an awful lot more than we give them credit for. And theyre more honest. This is a story from a childs point of view and I hope it will make people think beyond just Ireland. I never imagined that in January 2005 my play would still be so relevant. It makes me quite sick.
DK: Did you really try to tell Catholics and Protestants apart as a girl?
GH: Sure. I remember being in the city center with my Mummy, thinking, There must be Protestants round here somewhere. You came from the war zones, mixed at the shopping area and acted like normal people, then went back home to your separate territories. Its sort of mad, when you think about it.
DK: The play conveys the senselessness of war, bigotry and its impact on children. What else?
GH: People of various cultures, backgrounds and personal histories come away with different messages. Vietnam vets say it reminds them of walking the streets and seeing the horrified kids. People whove had run-ins with their folks tell me its about family dysfunction. Others with drinking fathers say its about alcoholism.
DK: What do you want audiences to come away with?
GH: A sense of hope. You cant go to the dark moments without it. No matter what you want, no matter what you are born into, keep friggin dreaming. Because if you work hard and keep focused, theres a way to get there. I mean, just the fact that Im onstage telling my story proves everything can turn out all right.
DK: Given the shows harrowing personal content, how do you make it through each night? Do you down several Baileys when you get home?
GH: [Laughs] Its about me, yet its not about me. Its not literal. I figured out a way of distancing myself, elevating the subject. If it didnt, it would be exhausting. If I thought for one second that I was self-indulgent, God forbid, Id quit.
DK: Why didnt you escape to America to seek your fortune earlier?
GH: Youre the first to askits a wonderful question Ive often contemplated. There was definitely an opportunity, but I was only 13 and wasnt able to help myself. Being in an all-girls Catholic school, I felt that education was more important. If my parents had been pushy, I couldve had much more of an acting career. With my daddy getting sick, it was a freakin hard life and the last thing people were thinking was how to get Geraldine on a TV show. I was needed at home. I had to wait till I was old enough to do it myself.
DK: Many solo shows rely on accessories to shift characters. Were you tempted to use them?
GH: No. I absolutely wanted to keep this show in its purest form, no matter how hard I had to work. For me, impersonation comes naturally. If youre honest enough as a performer, the audience will get it. I couldnt fathom cluttering up the stage with glasses or hats or whatever. The trick is to find a gesture to associate with each character. When I hitch up my pants you know its Daddy. As soon as I clasp my hand to my heart, its Mummy. During rehearsals, the movements became a sort of dance.
DK: You come from a big Irish family with six kids, but rarely mention your siblings. Why?
GH: We all grew up in the same house but nobody talked, just went about our own business. There was me in my cocoon. I dont even know what my relationship was with my brothers and sisters, so to force it in the play would be makey-uppey. Let them write their own play.
DK: How did Angelica Huston get involved?
GH: When I was doing the play in L.A., in a tiny 35-seat theater, [director] Carol Cane said, I think Ill invite my friend Angelica. I was like, Yeah, okay whatever. Then she says, Angelica freakin Huston! After the performance, Angelica is bawling her eyes out and Im like, Holy crappola! She says, Hello, nice to meet ya, I think youre brilliant. Im looking at this goddess, shes gushing away, but I dont hear anything. I was awestruck. Much later, when I told her the play was headed for New York, she said, Let me know what I can do for you. And I was like, Jesus Christ, I dont ask anybody for anything, its against my nature.
DK: What is Hustons role exactly?
GH: Much more than simply lending her name, Angelica is super supportive. She sends important people to see the show. She rang me before the first performance and offered advice to calm my nerves. You are a powerhouse, she said. You are a brilliant wee girl and you must continue to tell this story. People are going to listen and be affected. She sent me friggin flowers!
DK: Now that youre a successful actress, do you ever return to Belfast?
GH: Sure, I took the play back home recently. To present it to the people who also lived that storyto see them stand on their feet and smilegave me permission to stage the play wherever I want, with pride.