Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Mother's Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Acts"

Mother’s Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Acts
Wayne Harris (Book); Randy Craig (Music)

Wayne Harris
Interspersed with soulful snippets of blues and gospel, Wayne Harris lovingly and humorously tells the life story of his mother, Ruth, a woman “when she smiled, her cheeks rose up like pop-up biscuits.”  With his own dimpled cheeks, winning smile, and eyes that pop and glisten, the show’s creator and main performer also reveals a lot about himself in The Marsh’s Mother’s Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Act and how his life-long struggles with faith and family begin finally to resolve into a deep understanding of the unconditional love his mother has bestowed on him all her life.  For him, it takes her approaching death, a prayer circle around her hospital bed, and leading a group of pall bearers down a steep ramp to help bring into new integration all those years of her sacrifice; her lessons given him while “cooking, cleaning, and chastising at the same time;” and her deep, unwavering love for her Jesus.

“Well a woman’s life ain’t easy; it’s like a slow-churnin’ blues,” sings Wayne as he begins his mother’s story as an African-American girl of thirteen taking her first job as a domestic, “raising white folks babies” in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Moving to St. Louis as soon as she was seventeen, Ruth has her own five babies, Wayne being the middle.  A stepfather, Uncle Bill, moves in to rescue the family of six from a two-bedroom house; but for all the devotion Uncle Bill shows his mother, young Bill escapes as far as he can to California (also at seventeen because “I hated him”).  He becomes totally independent of the family, only calling his mom “only on holidays and in natural disasters”.

During one of those phone calls, we hear Ruth instructing him bit by bit how to make her famed banana pudding (surely causing everyone in the audience to want just one taste).  In a voice reminiscent of many elderly mothers, she reminds him that the puddings were always short-changed in ‘Nilla Wafers because of a little boy’s hands beating hers into the box of delights (something I totally remember doing in my mother’s kitchen). 

In those same calls across the country, Mama also takes time to worry about his soul and why he has not yet taken Jesus as his savior.  Wayne transforms himself into his mother and other “sistas” of the church sitting in the pews, singing in their old lady voices the likes of “I stood on the banks of the Jordon, seeing those ships go by … Lord, I got my ticket … Please don’t leave me down here.”  Those Pentecostal roots continue to run through his own soul as he rips into “Get right ‘n church … let’s go home.”  For all his ongoing assurances that “I don’t pray” or “I don’t believe,” it becomes clear that Wayne has a lot of Ruth’s faith deep inside him, something she probably is looking down from somewhere and smiling about. 

But this story is really about Wayne and his own journey, with Ruth just the excuse for telling it.  He also becomes a number of other characters who have touched his life along the way.  We are introduced first-hand to his crazy sister Wanda (“She has religious-based psychosis”), a homeless vagabond on Union Street in St. Louis, a fervently shouting-for-the-Lord Reverend Pruitt, and of course, Uncle Bill himself.  We also hear of Wayne’s love affair with the Black Panthers (especially their “cool black jackets”) and how “my first masturbation fantasy included Angela Davis’ afro”).

While his stories and impersonations are heart-warming and fun, it is when Wayne really lets loose in song that we totally understand the love he still holds for his mama.  He croons with gut-deep emotion the entirety of Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” leaving no eye dry in the audience.  He is ably aided throughout by John McArdle on bass and especially in the distantly familiar, soulful chords and melodies played by Randy Craig on piano.  David Ford directs the flow of the spoken and sung storytelling that in the end has helped each of us in the audience remember our own mothers, the words of caution and love they whispered in our ears as we were growing up, and the journeys we still traveled with them beside us – in spirit if not in person.

Rating: 3 E’s

Mother’s Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Acts continues through December 10 at The Marsh, 2120 Allston Way. Berkeley.  Tickets are available Monday – Friday, 1 - 4 p.m. by calling 415-282-3055 or by going online at http://themarsh.org/mothers_milk/wayne-harris-and-musicians .

Photo by Doug McKechnie

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