Irish famine leads to deportations in ‘Belfast Girls’

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By Bob Evans

Kansas City’s Fishtank Theatre undertakes a major project with the presentation of Jaki McCarrick’s new play, “Belfast Girls,” making its premiere in the metro with a stellar cast of local actresses in a tight ensemble piece that explores the devastation and destitution of young Irish orphans.

“Belfast Girls” tells the story of five young women on a three month journey from Ireland to Australia to escape the deadly conditions of a country plagued with famine after the failure of their potato crops. The back story is that of the 1848 Irish potato famine where thousands of people died because of no food and no jobs in the generally agriculturally solvent Emerald Isle.

This play tells the story of five women as they travel from Ireland to Australia, each with different hopes and dreams of a fresh start and a new path. Sadly, as they travel, their life-stories display the conditions that led them to this journey. All orphans claiming to be under 19, their pasts reveal the desperation they endeavor to escape.

Known specifically as “Belfast Girls,” the 4,000 or more women that left Ireland were also known as the “Potato Orphans.” Their only hope was to leave Ireland to save their lives and the prospect of working as prostitutes on the streets and alleyways of Belfast.

“Over 4,000 young females left Ireland between 1848 and 1851 as part of a scheme called the Orphan Emigration scheme, which was established by Earl Grey,” Heidi Van, Fishtank proprietor said. “A particular group of ‘orphans’ were considered to have been especially feisty and colorful, known for their use of obscene language and riotous behavior. These were known as ‘the Belfast Girls’.”

For this all female cast, director Heidi Van found five super-charged actresses, each worthy of carrying and developing her characters. With one weak performance, the show would not fit so tightly together. Van’s cast features Rasheedat ‘Ras’ Badejo, Kaitlin Gould, Annie Kalahurka, Lindsay Lillig, and Erdin Schultz-Bever. Each of these women deliver strong, gutsy performances and contribute to the overall effect of the show. Also in the cast are Lydia Miller, Makenzie Waterson and Melissa Trierweller.

“Belfast Girls” is performed on a complex set with beautiful lighting elements, a great projected changing sky cast, and good sound design. The one piece of the project that was difficult was the echo when more than one girl at a time spoke. The dialects were very thick and difficult to understand when dialogue came fast or on top of others. The Irish brogue alone is difficult to American ears but when there is an echo or multiple girls talking, some dialogue is lost.

Give the girls lots of credit for learning the Irish accent and presenting a tale of some bawdy language and less than pure speech patterns. The actresses never broke character with their accents. Any flaw would stand out, most certainly.

While the show focuses on the orphan girls and their hopes to begin a fresh life in Australia, the long-standing conflict in Ireland of Protestant verses Catholic surfaces as well. This may not be so well-known amongst younger audiences, but the conflict was a reality then, and probably continues now (though not as divisive).

“Belfast Girls” tells a great story based on a real situation. Truth always sets the tone for the story and the end of a truthful story is not always as hoped. The problem here is that the play is too long and needs trimming. The play depends on giving the girls’ background stories and, as such, there is little action. The play would be much more exciting if about 20 minutes could be trimmed.

The artistic staff for “”Belfast Girls” is Heidi Van, producing artistic director; Katherine Jackson, stage manager; Erin Hartnett, assistant stage manager; Mark Exline, scenic designer; Joanna Sweiton Windler, costume designer; Heidi Van, lighting designer; Shane Rowse, projection designer; Heidi Van, sound designer; Wallace McCannless, assistant sound designer; Scott Stackhouse a, Amy O’Connor, Megan Sells, dialect coaches. Production staff: Zach Hull, Hunter Andrews, technical directors; Nora Akers, production assistant. Charlotte Street Staff: Amy Klingman, executive artistic director; Patrick Alexander, programming/studio residency; Mason Kilpatrick, Marketing/communications; Julia Cole, rocket grant program coordinator; Margaret Perkins-McGuinness, development; Jonann B. Eldredge, operations/business manager; Selina Oneal, neighborhood residency coordinator.

“Belfast Girls” continues at La Esquina, 1000 W. 25th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, Wed-Sat at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at 816.809.7110 or at the Fishtank website. www.fishtanktheatre.com

Tags: Fishtank Theatre, “Belfast Girls, Charlotte Street Foundation, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment

Images courtesy of Heidi Van and Brian Paulette & The Fishtank

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