Heather Christian believes in ghosts. That’s the main thing to know about this actress/musician and her rich and strange show, Animal Wisdom, a “requiem mass,” she says, for the dearly departed and other spirits who accompany her through life. You might be part of the 40% of Americans who say they believe in ghosts (that annually trotted out Halloween statistic…), but your actual experience of the spirit world has as much substance as a cold breath of air compared to Christian’s. The direct descendent of two generations of mediums, she tells us dead seriously upfront that ghosts are as much a part of her waking existence as they might be in our dreams.
And so they are also here in this show (I mean, really, in the room – if you believe her): the spirits of her grandmothers, Ella and Heloise (whose migraines signaled phantom presences), her grandfather (who now “lives” in her car), and her godfather Miles (who visited her as a cloud of cicadas on her wedding day). Also, a mischievous poltergeist from the 1800s who haunted her antebellum childhood bedroom, and the specter of a little girl, Johanna, though she was more of an imaginary friend created to keep the naughty Victor at bay. Finally, she announces matter-of-factly, there are all of the ghosts we have brought into the Bushwick Starr with us – a round 40, by her estimate – and the two who haunt the premises already (of course). Because spirit trafficking can be a tricky business, she concludes this introduction by asking us to implore whatever gods we might worship to bless the proceedings (with paper cups of Coca-Cola for communion wine, because Animal Worship is more than a little kitschy, too, in a Deep South vein).
Even before anything on set could go bump in the night (and things will…), Christian has muddied the waters of her performance into seance and religious ritual, darker than the rolling Mississippi that threatens her native Natchez, MS. Her syncretism, invoking the origins of Greek theater, is the oracular fire that burns at all times underneath this blazingly spiritual show. Whether you can intellectually invest in Christian’s belief system or not, this waif-like Peroxide blonde who hardly looks strong enough to pound her piano (which she can really do), much less bear the weight of generations of ghostly grievances, is such a damned talented performer – an inspired and original musician, a mesmerizing storyteller, and yes, a pretty convincing channeler of spirits herself – that she sends shivers down everyone’s spines during this two-hour, bring-down-the-house séance/cabaret. In this season of the dead, from American Halloween to the French Toussaint, if you want to connect with some spirit from your past, knock at the door of the Bushwick Starr before this show ends.
Christian, as I mentioned, is also from Natchez, Mississippi, which, notwithstanding a brief and wry attempt at context (early on, she explains the city’s problems with erosion, due to either the kudzu vine or river catfish), is much more than the sum of those nuisances here. If you ever wanted to believe in ghosts, Natchez, one of the oldest cities in the US, a melting pot of European, Native American and African populations at the bottom of the slave-trading, cotton-rich Mississippi Delta, and a once flourishing, now greatly faded, antebellum hub of culture, commerce and trade, might just be the place. The Bushwick Starr has been dressed up to look like the parlor of one of Natchez’s mansions, with thickly laid oriental carpets, Christian icons, and a profusion of candelabras, candles, and brass and glass bric-a-brac (set by Eric Farber, who also plays drums here, and Andrew Schneider, of Youarenowhere fame). Christian’s descriptions of her ancestors, from her devoutly Catholic, spiritualist grandmothers to the dashing Miles (aka international playboy and CIA codebreaker) and the Faulknerian cousin who dug graves as a profession then locked himself in his room to die (but was carted off to the madhouse instead), do a bit for Natchez what Faulkner did more indirectly for his native Oxford. She peddles easily in Southern Gothic tropes, but her stories and visions are lent authority by a voice that is at least 100 times bigger than her body, and that can stretch out a Mississippi drawl all the way to tomorrow.
First and foremost, however, Animal Wisdom is a concert that showcases Christian’s consummate musical talents (“so much God-given natural talent” that it amazed Christian’s piano teacher, when she was only six). She performs her original compositions on piano throughout the show but also has impressive vocal range, shrieking, growling and purring almost at once, (which might explain in part the show’s title). She is backed up by four musicians (in addition to Farber on percussion: Sasha Brown on guitar and cello, Fred Epstein on bass, and Maya Sharpe on violin) and eventually by a dozen choristers, as if everything she wanted to express was too much for a single voice. These other voices, joined with hers in the dark in the show’s finale, sing at last the requiem mass she promised in the show’s first minute, a gospel voyage through the valley of death to emerge into the hosannas of the promised land. If I could be resistant at times to Christian’s spiritualism, as emotionally real as it was to her, this extended moment of soul travel was quasi-cosmic.
But beyond providing musical support, those stage bodies also literally hold her up when, as can happen in a possession, the spirits are too strong for the medium. At one point in the performance, Christian had to take a timeout, apparently overcome by the ghosts she had summoned. Real or performance? Christian is a seasoned performer and composer and her mien here is not unlike that of a lion tamer: she trots out the beasts but keeps them tame with various tricks of the trade, for our excited wonder and enjoyment (actually, that’s what a clairvoyant does, too). In a word, we are hoodwinked but never ungenerously, as happens in the most magical performances. Christian’s Animal Wisdom makes it a lovely experience to believe in the ghost world, if only for an evening, and especially in this season when we do remember the never-to-return souls of the dead.
Animal Wisdom runs to December 9, 2017. For more details, click here.