Rising from a pew to help carry his mother’s casket, Wayne Harris can’t help but think about all the things that can go disastrously wrong on the way to the hearse. But before the task even begins he’s fielding commentary from the mourners. “The boy ain’t even saved,” says one woman. “Typical church ladies, sanctified and signifyin’,” he scoffs to the audience, sounding both put out and awed.
A homecoming in three acts, Mother’s Milk runs Fridays at The Marsh through May 31 with a special Mother’s Day performance on Sunday. Written by Harris and directed by David Ford, it’s a remarkably graceful piece of theater, toggling back and forth in time between his upbringing in civil rights-era St. Louis, his return to the city he fled to bury his mother, and his present life in California.
As an actor, Harris can open a channel to a character’s inner life with a vocal inflection — he’s particularly effective evoking his mother and step-father — but it’s the way he weaves blues, spirituals and gospel songs into the narrative that makes Mother’s Milk such a powerful experience.
He’s been presenting the one-man show around the Bay Area since the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival. A long run at The Marsh followed in 2015-16, and he’s brought a refurbished production to the intimate Berkeley venue with stellar support from pianist Randy Craig and bassist John McArdle, who both arranged the rich array of original pieces and standards (Harris’s rendition of “God Bless the Child” gets to the marrow of Billie Holiday’s observations about what we really inherit from our parents).
Harris’s family story follows the contours of the great migration of African Americans out of the South, starting with his mother Ruth as a teenager taking care of white babies in Little Rock, working long hours six days a week “because that’s what it was like.” She ends up in St. Louis, where Harris comes of age enthralled by the revolutionary sartorial style of the Black Panthers while raring to flee his pillar-of-the-community but despotic step-father.
The mother’s milk of the title refers to the unconditional love he received from his mom, and her struggle with the breast cancer that took her life. But it’s also about resilient culture from which he draws sustenance, a culture that breathes in the cadence of the blues.
His trickiest balancing act pivots on the question of faith. Much of the play unfolds at church or in prayerful situations, and after a hilarious youthful experience being saved, he sheds the particulars of the Baptist church for an amorphous spirituality that will feel very familiar to Berkeley audiences. But Harris’s appreciation for the needs met by faith undergird “Mother’s Milk” with a glowing generosity. He doesn’t pretend to have many answers, but Harris knows we’re all asking the same questions.
Recommended gigs: Music in the Park / Twisted Roots / Beth Custer
Berkeley’s Department of Recreation kicks off a new Music in the Park concert series at the Berkeley Rose Garden 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday with “Hats & High Tea,” a Mother’s Day concert featuring veteran drummer Paul Tillman Smith, pianist Ben Flint, guitarist Carl Lockett, bassist Joe McKinely, and saxophonist Ranzel Merritt Jr. Flowers will be handed out to the mothers (presumably not purloined from the Rose Garden).
Billed as “Twisted Roots,” Sunday’s encounter at The Back Room between Berkeley old-time guitar master Eric Thompson and the maverick improviser Henry Kaiser is sure to be exhilarating. A folk music icon whose been at the forefront of the Bay Area scene since the early 1960s (he’s featured widely on last year’s four-disc box set Jerry Garcia Before the Dead), Thompson is deeply versed in an array of roots styles). Kaiser is a prolific master who’s game for just about any musical adventure. Joining the guitarists on this acoustic-meets-electric encounter are John Hanrahan on drums and Terry Shields on bass.
And Wednesday, clarinetist, vocalist, and composer Beth Custer premieres her latest chamber composition, also at the Back Room, an evening-length, eight-movement work based on the Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown: 100 Solutions to Reverse Global Warming. The project is a collaboration with San Jose cellist Freya Seeburger (aka Cellista) and her ensemble Juxtapositions with violinist Mia Nardi-Huffman, pianist Naomi Stine, and special guest Jim Kassis on drums/percussion.