“Animal Wisdom” is a show for the senses.
Coproduced by The Bushwick Starr and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Heather Christian’s folk-blues requiem is a truly otherworldly production, inviting religious and nonreligious to help lay beloved spirits to rest and be content with the unknown.
An intimate stage setup with thrown persian rugs, vintage lamps, and a light-up baby Jesus figurine or two nestled in, it felt as if we had entered the depths of Heather Christian’s mind and her Mississippi past, with an upright piano as the altar.
“I’m not here to confirm or deny the existence of an afterlife, I’m just here to listen. And talk. Clearly,” Christian told the audience towards the end of the show. “Maybe someone else needs it too.”
The Obie Award-winning composer and performer first drew the audience in with her Southern-accented banter and barefoot walk, her presence alone powerfully commanding the attention of the packed house from the moment she walked out.
In a bold voice, Christian told lighthearted tales of deceased loved ones and half-remembered Methodist hymns. A four-piece band accompanied her, swinging effortlessly between gospel and folk-blues.
Andrew Schneider’s lighting was perhaps the most important element of the show. Dozens of suspended light bulbs slowly appeared as if to mirror Heather’s words. At other times, they acted as a portal for the dead to communicate, sometimes with one flickering bulb, or many bulbs, reminiscent of Stranger Things (yes I said it).
Heather invites the audience to participate every so often, encouraging a laugh or a hum. It eventually ended in a straight-up requiem mass, which climaxed in a fifteen-minute blackout. Everyone’s ears perked and it was a bit hallucinogenic as the darkness seized the vulnerable, still audience. A choir then suddenly blasted the room.
As the crowd eventually left the theater, there was a subtle quietude that bonded each of us, knowing we had lived together through this mind-altering, lucid dream Heather Christian conjured. I think we all felt a burden lifted, like maybe we subconsciously laid something of our own to rest.
“Animal Wisdom” is running through Nov. 18 at The Bushwick Starr. Find show information and tickets here.
Cover image courtesy of Bushwick Starr