Jonatha Brooke stars in the one-woman play “My Mother Has Four Noses” playing at the Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.
How We Met Her Mother
by Jay S. Jacobs
A few years ago, acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke had to put her career and life on hold when her mother was afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia. For two years, Brooke, her husband and a cousin took on the full-time positions of caretaker and watched as her mother Darren Stone Nelson, a respected poet and author, was robbed of her eccentric and funny life force.
However, despite the tragic implications of everything which was happening, Brooke and her mother could not help noticing the beauty and humor of the situation as well. In her more lucid moments, Brooke’s mother would ask “Are you getting this down, Boolie? This is pure gold.” [Boolie was Brooke’s mother’s nickname for her daughter.] Even as she was dying, Brooke’s mother was inspiring her creatively.
The experience led to Brooke’s provocatively-named one-woman musical play My Mother Has 4 Noses, which Brooke is currently performing at The Duke on 42nd in New York. The play is a rumination of death and disease, but it is also a loving and funny tribute to the life and eventual passing of her irrepressible mother.
The title is not as impressionistic as it would immediately seem. In fact, in a very real way, Brooke’s mother did have four noses – prosthetic ones. A devout lifelong Christian Scientist, Nelson had refused to seek medical help, in keeping with the church’s dictates, in an earlier case of cancer on her face. By the time the pain forced her to finally give in to medical treatment, the cancer had spread and Nelson had to lose her nose. For the rest of her life, she wore false noses.
Still, Brooke’s mother was not the type to wallow in self-pity. The situation just became one more thing for the irrepressible woman to joke about. Years later, Alzheimer’s might steal her mind and her life, but it could not take her sense of flair and humor.
After decades as an acclaimed and popular singer and songwriter, first popping onto the music scene as half of the beloved late 80s folk duo The Story, Brooke has much performing experience on stage. Still, it did not totally prepare her for the idea of Broadway theater. However, Brooke created the book and twelve songs for the play and took it on the road, doing successful readings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This led to the first actual stagings of the show in Connecticut and Minneapolis and at the Fringe Festival back in Philadelphia.
Now the New York resident has come full circle, bringing the show back home to Broadway for a long stint. The music from the play has also become Brooke’s latest CD release. Soon after My Mother Has 4 Noses opened at the Duke at 42nd Street in the heart of Manhattan’s Times Square area, we caught up with Brooke to discuss her show, her career and her mother.
Your one-woman play My Mother Has 4 Noses tells a very personal, difficult story. Was it daunting to get it all out and how hard is it to share some very dark stuff on a daily basis?
It’s very daunting to get it all out. It’s funny, because every time I embark on a new project, whether it’s a record or some kind of written blog or whatever, I do write it and I just get it out. Often it’s only after the fact that I realize how much I’ve said. (chuckles) So, there is a little bit of that, but there is a little bit of “Well, I have to tell the truth.” This is my story and this is how it needed to be told. This is how it feels most natural to me. That’s the yin and the yang of creating art. You just have to be truthful and go to the mat for it.
You bring a good deal of humor to the story, in particular in the first act. Was it difficult to lightly celebrate her life at the same time as you have to tell about her physical and mental decline?
Yeah. I think that was one of the most essential parts of it for me. To balance it out and find that fine line of how much is too much on either side. It’s part of my nature. I’ve always been a storyteller on stage, so even as a touring recording artist for the last 20 years I have tried to break up the songs with crazy stories and vignettes and being funny. I’ve been more and more drawn to that. Mom was hysterically funny, so I really wanted to amplify that. Also, amplify that crazy… I don’t know if dichotomy is the word… but crazy, funny stuff happens in the most despairing and dark moments. I have that kind of brain that splits into two. On the one hand I think I’m going down with grief, on the other hand half of me is watching the cremation guy come in with the gurney and thinking oh my God, this is so crazy funny. (laughs) How could this actually exist? This is happening. I think that by telling those stories on stage, it gives the audience permission to laugh at these horrible things. Because you have to, or you will go down.
Both your mother and father were professional writers. Do you think artistic temperaments can be passed down in families? Or perhaps just being immersed in it so much can get you into writing?
(laughs) I think, yeah, that’s my suspicion. My brothers and I are all creative types. My brothers – one is an actor and a teacher and the other is also a teacher and an incredible writer. Essayist. So I think we certainly share this incredible love and respect for language, telling a story and trying to write as capably and evocatively as we can. Certainly our parents would correct every grammatical error, no matter what, all through our lives. Even into her late dementia, mom was correcting us on our pronouns. (laughs again)
You have lots of your mother’s possessions on stage with you when you do the performance. You also show lots of old pictures on Power Point slides. Does that help it feel that she is there with you?
Definitely. It helps me reconnect to the emotion when I’m accessing those intense moments of the vigil, or reading her poems. That’s a very intense way to reanimate the emotions that I need to act now, because it isn’t as fresh. It’s not like I’m reliving it every night. I am accessing the actor part of myself. Her possessions really help to do that.
In the play you have a clever line about when you finally left the Christian Scientist religion behind, when you discovered that Advil works. However, I’m sure in real life it was a lot more difficult decision to move on from a belief you had been brought up in. How did you really decide you had to move on?
It was very gradual and kind of crept up on me. I have to say that, I mean, the Advil is a great gag, but it’s kind of true. That was this definitive moment. I had very severe menstrual cramps my entire life. Like really, really severe. My friends would beg me, “Please, would you just try? Please just take this. Please.” When I finally relented, it really was like the heavens parted and the sun shone down. There was this incredible hum of relief. I thought: Oh my God, they weren’t kidding. (laughs) I had poo-pooed it all those years. But the real evolution was gradual and kind of like a default, because Christian Science was all I knew for so long. Even though I wasn’t following its tenets, I wasn’t going to church, I wasn’t reading the lessons, I didn’t really go anywhere else. Whenever there was a crisis, even until I was about 30, I would kind of run home and go back to church, in a way. Because I didn’t know any better. Then once I started finding my own way, and Advil, and had a couple of medical crises that I did choose to deal with with medicine, it was really intense. I felt like I had to confess to my parents, look I’m going to go to a surgeon for this. And they were lovely. They said of course, it’s your choice.
Obviously, your mother resisted it for a long time. How difficult was it to get her to finally realize that she had to get medical help or she was going to probably die?
Yeah. I think it became this "oh my goodness" moment for her. She really didn't want to die. It felt imminent to her. The pain was so excruciating that the conversation started with, "Hey, mom, I totally respect and I adore the fact that you are so steadfast. Could we just talk about pain relief? You're not even able to focus and pray in the way that you might when you're faced with this awful, awful pain." That was the beginning of the opening of the door that eventually became the rescue. But it was about, "Can we just talk about pain relief?" That allowed her to say, "You know what? Maybe I need to do something about this."
As a songwriter, how tricky was it to write songs that tell the story in the show, but would also work out of context for the album?
That's a great question. I guess that I'm just a songwriter that writes the song that has to be written. I have never been a literal, telling-the-story kind of songwriter. I didn't want to do that for this theater piece. I wanted to kind of over-estimate the audience. That's what I love as a listener. I want to be challenged. I want to find my own story in the songs. I want there to be ellipsis and mystery. So the songwriting was very natural. My little bit of trepidation was: okay, this is not musical theater kind of songwriting. Are people going to accept it? They have embraced it wholly, which has been so lovely, because the songs are a little mysterious. In a way I wrote them to be a clue into what's really happening with me as the character telling this story. The songs... okay I'm not saying a lot about myself, my career, Jonatha. The songs are telling you what's going on in my heart. The rest of the time I'm telling you more about my mom.
You've been on stage for decades now, but this is a very different animal than the music you have done before.
Yes it is. (laughs)
What are some challenges you find in theatrical acting and do you feel your musical background sort of readied you for it?
I was a dancer until I was about 30. So I think that has helped me physically inhabit a comfortable persona onstage all these years. I do think that as a singer touring behind my albums, I would find the acting in the songs. I would often really invest myself in each song. They would change each night. They would take on a different hue or timbre. That's always been exciting about singing for me. So in a way, this is perhaps a natural extension of the storytelling of the songs and my persona as a dancer. This is just one more leap to a little fuller incarnation, in a way. (laughs) Not that it's not daunting. It's terribly daunting. I would joke over the years when people would say, "Oh, you're such a great storyteller, you should do theater." I would be like: No, no, no, no, no. I just want to make records and tour. So this is a leap and I have learned so much. I am evermore humbled and in awe of actors, for whom this is their first thing, because I am learning so much about acting. And loving it, actually.
Yes, it's almost like the opposite of a concert: in a concert you use the words to set up the music, but here you use the music to comment on the words.
Right. Yeah. It is. It's crazy. But I'm kind of digging it.
Everybody, particularly of a certain age, eventually has to deal with the death of a loved one. Obviously it is a universal story, but it's also one that is difficult to deal with. Were you worried about whether there would be an audience for this? Or did you just need to do this and hope that people would follow you?
That's so interesting. I never even thought about it. I never thought: oh, this may be not a topic people will want to come see. From the very, very first readings, when I didn't know what the hell I was doing... Our first reading was six months after mom died. I had this deadline. I had this friend in Pittsburgh at City Theater who had said, "Hey, I want to work on something with you. Let's do this thing." Because I had told her about my idea. So I did this reading, and even from the early days, people got that it was a love story. They got that it wasn't just about the end of life or dementia. It was a love story and there was such great humor in it. So I think from that moment on that gave me confidence. Wow, people are really getting the crazy balance of tragedy and comedy in this thing. I just have to trust that that is a good thing, because the response has been pretty... what's the word?... consistent.
Your career was really thriving and then you had to take time off to come home and care for your mother. Was that a difficult decision to make?
The decision wasn't difficult, because it was just imperative. It felt like this incredible existential cry. This call of: "Well of course you will do this. She is your mother. Look at this love." So the decision was a no-brainer. (laughs) It was the actual implementation and surviving it that was tough at times. I think anyone who is in this position of care giving knows that fatigue and that drain and those moments where you are just wondering if you will survive this. There I times I think that any caregiver thinks, "Oh my God, I'm going down. How am I going to continue?" Then there is always some sort of break in the clouds and you figure out ways to save yourself and take a break. I went to Malibu and I wrote songs, so I did get these few breaks. It's a tough thing to do, but I'm so grateful for that opportunity.
Did writing the play help you come to terms with everything which happened?
It did. It helped me put it in perspective. It helped me frame it and settle my unresolved conflicts, like did I do the right thing? Should we have done this? Could I have avoided that? It really helped me calm all of those unavoidable regrets and champion all of the good that happened.
What do you think your mother would think of the final outcome? How about your dad?
Besides that I didn't end up taking the Christian Science route, I think they would just be tickled. They were my biggest fans. They really were. I think my brothers would echo this, from the time we were little kids, they made us feel we could do anything. They were just thrilled at each of our tiny successes. Whenever something good would happen for one of us, they would just be over the moon. So I'm hoping they are tap dancing up there.
In the 80s when you started The Story, did you have any idea you'd still be working in music all these years later?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I knew this is it. This is the thing. I love writing songs. I love singing. I love touring. I love making records. I could only have hoped that I'd still be doing this. So it didn't occur to me that [I wouldn't]. I mean, although the music business has changed drastically and it is a daunting task to actually make a living doing what we do, it still so fuels me. It just makes my heart happy.
With the music industry in such bad shape, do you think more and more musicians will find alternative outlets like theater to get their work out there?
I think it's happening more and more. It's a tough transition to make. I didn't do it on purpose. (laughs) It kind of happened to me. I have to give mom credit. Even though she was goofing around in her somewhat demented persona, it really was her idea. Then I just kept thinking, wow, mom I think you are right. I am getting this down. Wow, this really could turn into something. Thank you. (laughs)
You started out on a major label, and were on that for a long while, but you've also had your own label for your last several albums. What is the difference between labels and indies? How does being in control make things better for you as an artist?
Well, I am lucky to have had the major label support early on. As much as it never quite ended well, because there were all these regime changes that would happen right when my album was starting to chart, but I had the luxury of some pretty deep pockets for the early days. That allowed me to transition to really transition into an independent successfully, because I had that fan base as a result of the marketing and promotion. At one point, when I got dropped in the middle of a national tour, right as the single from 10 Cent Wings was charting, we just thought, "All right, we can do better than this." Nothing has really changed. My fans are still coming to the shows. I have this base. If we can just capitalize on it, we can do this. So that's when we started Bad Dog. The pros are that we are nimble, we make all our own decisions, we control – for better or for worse – the artwork, the songs, the production. We also have to pay for it. (laughs) That's the really daunting part. You don't have $50,000 just to blow on a video. You don't have a quarter of a million dollars to go into a gorgeous studio and hang out for a month. You've got to make a record for, if you're smart, 25 grand tops. Then you've got to figure out how to market it. There aren't any record stores anymore, so what are you going to do? How much are you going to spend on trying to fight the big boys?
Well, speaking of the big boys, you recently did some writing with Katy Perry for her new album. How did that come about? What was it like?
Isn't that crazy? (laughs) People would send me these interviews over the last seven or eight years of Katy Perry always citing me as an influence. You know, when people would ask her "who are your influences?" I was like, wow, that is just so cool. I love it. I would comment on it. People who knew her through her management and stuff, like my friend Brendan Okrent from ASCAP, would always call her manager and say, "Hey, Katy mentioned Jonatha again, maybe we should hook them up. That might be kind of cool." So it finally happened last May. We met and spent three days in the studio hanging out. We had an incredible time. I think she's a bad ass. We wrote two songs and one of them ("Choose Your Battles") made it to her record (Prism), so I just couldn't be more thrilled. I think she is tremendous. She's an incredible singer. She is really smart writer. I can't wait to see how she evolves.
The play is certainly about looking back. What kind of things make you nostalgic?
Oh, goodness. Well, any of those things of mom. Her hat and those tchotchkes on the table. Those are definitely nostalgia. Some of it is in such a great, wistful good way. Happier times. Seeing that picture at the end of the show, of me when I was six, whispering in mom's ear, that's a great nostalgia. I really do choose to remember her at her best, most silly, goofball time. Music is the thing that makes me most nostalgic. When I hear songs that inspired me in the early days, or even older songs of mine. It's kind of like: aww, there's that. Oh, wow. I don't know what else makes me nostalgic. (laughs) I'm trying to look forward and stay afloat.
You mention in the play that you live in New York. What is it like as a New Yorker doing a show right on 42nd Street in the middle of Times Square and the Broadway district? Your first play and it's right in the middle of everything. How cool is that?
It's pretty much the coolest thing ever. I'm holding my breath because I can't believe it. The reviews have been really lovely. So I keep waking up every morning and thinking it might go away, or be a dream, or I may not really be this fortunate. Then it's still true and I still get to do this show that I adore. I still get to sing these songs that I adore. Good things are happening. I guess the most exciting thing about it we're an independent. We're just as indie as my record label. It's me and my husband. We are the mom and pop of this operation. (laughs) We just went for it. We didn't want to wait around and hope that some theater company would pick us up. We were just like: You know, this feels like we really have something that is connecting. Let's make it happen. So we did and it happened to be that the Duke Theater was free in the time that we were hoping to mount it. And we went for it. We just went for it.
Do you think you'll do more theater now in conjunction with your music?
I have no idea what's next. My director Jeremy Cohen, who has been so lovely, we were joking at previews. [He said,] "Hey, if this goes well, maybe you can get a gig at Once. You can stand in for the lead of Once if they need a sub." (laughs) I was like, okay, that might be fun. I don't know. I just want to make this thing the best that it can possibly be. Fill those seats and hope that it reaches as many people as it can.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 27, 2014.
Photo Credit: © 2014 Sandrine Lee. Courtesy of Susan Blond PR. All rights reserved.