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Child's play in a war zone

Geraldine Hughes reached deep into her impoverished Irish childhood to create 'Belfast Blues.'

February 16, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The title of Geraldine Hughes' one-woman show, "Belfast Blues," refers both to the violent 30-year "troubles" in Northern Ireland and to the huge blue eyes of the young Geraldine, who watched it all as she came of age in the 1980s as a member of the oppressed Catholic minority.

"I had things to say, but I didn't have a voice," says Hughes, who at 32 is finally telling her story at the tiny, 35-seat Black Dahlia Theatre in L.A.

"It's one little girl's story, that's all it is," Hughes said in a recent conversation, her mobile face still dominated by lively "Belfast blues" beneath a mop of dark, loose curls. "I had one man tell me it reminded him of watching the kids who were in Vietnam; another man who called me was a child of Holocaust survivors. A story like this goes beyond color and religion and everything.

"It's just about a wee girl in a war, and it seems to be affecting people."

Steven Klein, producer of "Belfast Blues," says that of the approximately 30 people who have attended each performance, usually four or five hail from Ireland. "There's somebody with an Irish accent in the show every night," he says. The show's producers plan to take "Belfast Blues" to Ireland this summer for the West Belfast Festival, and are in negotiations for productions in Boston and New York.

In the first part of the show, Hughes recounts a bit of Irish luck that changed her life: She was 14 when American TV producers came to her neighborhood. Out of hundreds of hopefuls, they selected Hughes and three other Belfast youths with no acting experience to spend a summer in the U.S. to appear in the 1984 TV movie "Children in the Crossfire," directed by the late George Schaefer.

Among the producers of the film was Charles Haid, perhaps best known to TV audiences as Renko on "Hill Street Blues" and also a veteran TV, film and stage director.

The Hollywood connections made during that summer eventually became Hughes' escape from her poverty-stricken roots in Belfast. With the encouragement of Schaefer, Haid and Merrill Karpf, executive producer of "Children in the Crossfire," she moved to Los Angeles to earn a bachelor's degree from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. Schaefer, Haid and Karpf paid her tuition, and Hughes worked to pay her living expenses.

Through another connection, Hughes landed one of her first jobs in Los Angeles as part-time nanny to the children of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Haid recalls meeting Hughes at 14 in Ireland during the search for children to appear in the movie. "The way she looked, the way she looks now, with those big blue eyes -- she was just this sweet child," he says. "There was some pain in the child when we met her. She's getting rid of it now, but she's been through some stuff, this girl. All I know is that, when she was a child, when anyone would mention those areas of her life, she was quiet as a mouse. She would never talk about it. It mirrors children in our own American ghettos; we have an underclass of people who watch dreams on television."

Hughes says it was her American husband, Ian Harrington, who works as a personal assistant to an actor, who first pushed her to talk about her experience. "Ian comes from a very poor, redneck Pennsylvania family, so we both sort of come from nothin', we understand what nothin' is," Hughes says with a laugh.

"He said: 'Geraldine, you're a child of war; you have something to say,' " Hughes says. " 'With what's happening in the world today, there are thousands of kids in your position who are trying to lead a normal life while their lives are being interrupted by missiles and shooting. They have a voice, but we never hear them.' "

"Belfast Blues," developed in collaboration with Kim Terrell and the Virtual Theatre Project, began as a one-act show that Hughes presented to an audience of friends at the Black Dahlia. But everyone who saw it said it didn't tell the whole story, including Haid, who asked to be part of the project after seeing it as an invited guest.

Haid became the show's director -- and more. "Charlie and I just worked like crazy over the holidays," Hughes says. "He has a room in the back of his house, and he said: 'You can have it.' And the way I work this stuff out is, I don't write it -- I physicalize it first, videotape it, and watch it and transcribe it from that. So I was there like a maniac in the back room of his house.

"Charlie really pushed me toward the why of the play, and so did my husband," Hughes says. "I was running away from that. [Haid] said: 'Come on, where's the guts? If you're going to have the guts to do it, you have to have the guts to tell people how you really felt.' "

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