Animal Wisdom is a sensational Southern seance with moving original music and heartwrenching storytelling.
Animal Wisdom is a collision of traditional storytelling and modern lenses, bursting into a brilliant cacophony of light and music.
The filmed adaptation of Animal Wisdom is based on the critically acclaimed 2017 production from The Bushwick Starr, written by and starring Heather Christian. She prepares the audience for a Requiem Mass so that we can prepare our hearts and minds for the spirits that are not yet in repose: “This is not a TV show. This is not a theater show. This is…something else.”
The autobiographical piece is more of a tent revival rock concert than Catholic Mass, but it still upholds the deep traditions of storytelling and spirituality, rooted in Christian’s hometown of Natchez, Mississippi: “My great grandmother was a medium, my grandma suffered migraine visions; I write music. The way that I understand it, it’s all kind of the same thing.”
Christian speaks directly from the seats of the Woolly Mammoth theater and instructs us to find four objects from around the house to help create our own sanctum. A countdown clock is set and the performers spend the next 90 seconds performing a “looking for things around your house” number that is so engaging I didn’t want to walk away. Thankfully, there was a pause button so I didn’t miss a beat.
The film was produced jointly by The Bushwick Starr, American Conservatory Theater, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and was filmed on location in March 2021 at Woolly Mammoth in DC. The original stage direction of Emilyn Kowaleski is adapted to the screen by Director Amber McGinnis. McGinnis finds the tricky balance of intimate closeups, handheld shots, and widescreen angles so that the viewer can stay engrossed without feeling overwhelmed or disconnected.
Christopher Bowser’s set design takes full advantage of the theater’s industrial aesthetic and adds splashes of brilliance through ghostlights, layers of oriental rugs, antique knickknacks, and treasured pieces for Christian’s storytelling. I especially loved when the performers went outside the theater and used the backstage area and lobby. The lobby, stairs, and concession stand are used for an upbeat New Orleans funeral procession as hristian guides us fully into the Requiem Mass.
Two spirits stood out for me: Doris and Miles. The presence of her piano teacher Doris allowed for bandmates Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow, and Maya Sharpe to also embody her spirit thanks to her large personality and affinity for wigs. They quickly and rhythmically bounce from saying to saying and wig to wig, in a way that shows how large Doris’s presence was in Christian’s life. Doris saw incredible potential in Christian as a child and knew how special her talent was. It ends with Christian as Doris giving guidance on how to succeed as a pianist and ultimately find a husband: “After all, who could refuse you? You are a dragonslayer in the body of a waif.” The discomfort lingers and Christian transitions to her next spirit: Miles.
Miles, her godfather, inspired her love of words and an appetite for learning. His brilliant mind sadly developed dementia and he moved into assisted living, relegated to the title of “best counter” by his nurse. At this point in the piece, the percussionist Eric Farber accepts the role of Miles and joins her at the upright piano. She counts him in and he provides touching impacts of percussion using “junk” that punctuates the pain and questioning of his deteriorating state. She tells the audience that when Miles passed away, he threw himself into the cicadas — a moving and poignant moment, given that our 17-year Brood X is currently residing in the DC region. I can’t help but think of Miles now when I hear them crying out.
Christian paused before solemnly stating, “Grief does a thing to your brain,” as she led us into a journey of stages, from low-moan scatting, to key changes through anger and denial, and the penultimate choir of God and Science coming together.
Heather Christian draws us into her world with her presence and words, but then transports us to other worlds through her music. As powerful as the storytelling is, the original compositions are a potent masterpiece. The complex chord structures, varying time signatures, layering of sounds that give voice to the instruments intertwine with the personalities of the spirits so beautifully. The stories and emotional depth cannot exist without the music — and vice versa.
There is a portion of the film when Christian asks the audience to close our eyes and fully immerse in Kyrie eleison, Dies irae, and Sanctus unlike anything I’ve heard before. The items I reluctantly gathered in the opening moments were now in my hand, bringing back moments of my own grief and guiding me closer to peace. Hosannah then rang like a bell with a descant of “so praise be a wrecking ball.” A fitting end to a Mississippi Mass I will always remember.
This production reminded me of Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself directed by Frank Oz, now available to stream on Hulu. Both are so moving and personal that it almost feels voyeuristic if it weren’t for the invitation to participate in their stories.
Running Time: About two hours.