Under a street sign reading “Abbey Road,” the stage is lined with hanging ukeleles, as proprietor Mike Da Silva of the Da Silva Ukelele Co.—and host to an unusual series of performances on Eighth Street—introduces Michael Brown, performing his solo show, Memories and Dreams of the Twentieth Century: Storeis and a Couple of Songs, which runs again this Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4.
“The second half of the 20th Century is fast becoming the stuff of legend,” Brown begins, “the Second World War, the ’50s, ’60s—even the ’70s ... but not just newspaper stories.” It’s a storytelling show, a very reflective one about memory, about the almost-forgotten sensibilities of the ’60s versus the media events, tags and cliches that now identify it, and the ripening of one man’s—or perhaps his generation’s—own sensibilities, from the romanticism of experiencing it all into something like the wisdom of experience. “I have stories about the big events; I was at Woodstock; I met Fidel, Che, Malcolm X—but that’s not how I remember it.”
Opening the same weekend as Sun & Moon Ensemble finished up another, more theatrical one-man storytelling play, with an inseparable accompaniment in music and song, Brown’s piece—or pieces, each separately announced by supertitles—seems very spare, with a minimum of gestures or enactment, just straight recitation of his tales with a few aptly placed songs, either self-accompanied on guitar or delivered a capella.
At first, there seems to be a lot of exposition, but the audience quickly responds to Brown’s thoughtful, easygoing style, absorbing what he spins out, which comes up again in later episodes, the meaning made plain, if sometimes by refraction. Brown, veteran of the Moving Men and other notable troupes and projects of the times he talks about, knows his voice and presence, eschewing illusion, relying instead on the audience’s absorption in his words and his unfolding intention to extract the crystal of meaning from the ore of his reminiscences.
There’s the story of his successful uncle Benny in Newark, who the young Michael Brown speculates might be in with the Mob, offering at a Seder (“a secular event in my family”) to set his nephew up in politics, only to get tartly rebuffed by the young idealist—who later questions his own attitude when a conservative Christian jailkeeper helps him out of a bind when he’s arrested hitchhiking in Wyoming.
There’s the almost time-lapse image of a woman Brown meets when he sees her prancing through the viewfinder of his 8-mm moviecamera while taking crowd shots for an experimental film. She reappears randomly in his life for years, coast to coast, a Ruby Tuesday kind of thing amid crashing with the Mime Troupe and a bearded horde from mantra-like Mendocino, until he finally loses track of her after a last glimpse through windshield wipers as she dances exuberantly again for him, stepping out of his car. The telling is patently contemporary but captures, somehow, the almost ultraviolet aura of the times, something unspoken (and absent from all the revivals and retellings of yore), both subliminal and self-conscious.
There’s the story of boyhood, of “the first time beauty entered my soul.” And there’s a funny deadpan tale of determinedly fixing a vintage toaster instead of buying a new one, juxtaposed with Artaud’s image of theater as “victims at the stake, signalling each other through the flames,” and following the Living Theater around, who declared they were inspired by Artaud, propagating the myth—as Brown keeps on fixing his old toaster!
And finally the “Pièce de Resistance,” a finely told recollection of going to the races, maybe in search of that magical sense of spontaneity lost with the ’60s, and encountering The Great John Henry, then famous 9-year-old gelding in one of his final races, a horse of real heart whose career seemed to defy time, with the blue-collar-hero announcer Bob Gibson calling the race like poetry, drawing out the first syllable of the horse’s name—“Looks him in the eye and goes on by!”—with a happier ending for the noble horse, “coming home on the bit,” than for his legendary African-American namesake with the hammer, whose song Brown periodically intones, trying to beat the machine, both fulfilling a quote Brown recalled about “the personal life” from Anais Nin, an author he never read.
Just like that vicarious sense of satisfaction of winning at the track, like being told, “You were right; here’s your money,” Brown’s careful style of storytelling pays off in change along the way, every time a stray image hits home—but the dividends ripen as his show progresses, “though you can’t make withdrawals right away.”
MEMORIES AND DREAMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: STORIES AND A COUPLE OF SONGS
Written and performed by Michael Brown. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Da Silva Ukelele Co., Sawtooth Building, Suite 28, 2547 Eight St. $15 suggested donation. 868-3280.