Mom was a former newspaper columnist, published poet and certified clown — and she had Alzheimer’s. She said the craziest things and instructed her daughter to write them down. Mom, forever a lover of language, thought her life should be turned into a play.
The daughter — highly regarded singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke — agreed.
“Because she was such a character, she was complicit in creating theater around our daily travails,” said Brooke. “She would often make up songs or stories and she would ask me if I was getting it down. She thought it was great theater and it was funny. She wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
Whatever it was, it has become “My Mother Has Four Noses,” a one-woman musical that Brooke will perform this week at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. It tells the story of a daughter and mother trying to cope during the final stages of Alzheimer’s.
Encouraged by her husband, Minneapolis-bred talent manager Patrick Rains, Brooke brought her mother from Boston to live in the couple’s New York City apartment from August 2010 until her death in January 2012, at age 80.
“What are you gonna do? I come from a big family,” said Rains, one of seven kids who grew up in south Minneapolis, in a separate phone interview. “In big families, that’s what you do. Her mom had a crush on me. Her mom was a flirt and loved my deep voice. We had great times together.”
Nancy Nelson was a Christian Science Monitor columnist (under the name Darren Stone) and a trained clown (known as Stoney) who would participate in neighborhood parades and the like.
“What was so compelling about being with her these last two years was seeing her basic qualities just amplified,” said Brooke, 49. “A lot of the complicated personality stuff just fell away and what was left was this core human being who was funny and generous and kind and loving and playful and childlike. It was a great discovery to be left with those elements.”
In “My Mother Has Four Noses,” Brooke does monologues as her mom and uses snippets of several new songs to express her point of view.
“It’s not chronological,” Brooke. “I had no rules.”
The title refers to four prosthetic noses that her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, had after a bout with skin cancer.
Brooke, who has no theatrical experience or training but has long studied ballet, would write and perform scenes for her stuffed animals at home or pillows in hotel rooms — filming it on her computer and watching the playback.
Brooke has presented “My Mother Has Four Noses” in five workshops and one public performance at a small theater in Connecticut. The Minneapolis stagings will give her a chance to work with lights and a stage crew and tweak things after each performance. Rains said an old Minneapolis friend introduced him to the artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center, who turned out to be a fan of Brooke’s music.
CD and book coming, too
In January, Brooke plans to release a CD of 11 songs written for the show, and she’s writing a companion book on the parent-with-Alzheimer’s topic. In fact, she was working on the book when she phoned last week from a retreat at a friend’s farm in New Jersey.
Raised primarily in Boston, Brooke turned a music-class concert with Amherst College classmate Jennifer Kimball into a music career. The duo, known as the Story, made two well-received albums for Elektra in the early 1990s. Then Brooke went solo, releasing seven albums of literate folk-pop on MCA and her own label. Her most recent recording, 2008’s “The Works,” paired unreleased lyrics by the late folk giant Woody Guthrie with new music by her.
Her songs have been featured in such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dollhouse” and on the soundtrack to the movies “Return to Never Land” and “Tinker Bell.”
Besides “My Mother Has Four Noses,” Brooke has since written two other plays, “Death and Venice” and “Hopper,” in collaboration with New York playwright Anton Dudley. Her goal is a New York run for “My Mother” and then she plans to take it on tour.
Dining for dollars
To fund the “My Mother” project, Brooke launched a campaign at PledgeMusic.com, raising $75,000 from fans (her goal was $30,000).
Among the fundraising items were $500 risotto dinners with fine wine at Brooke and Rains’ Upper West Side apartment — six evenings, with two couples at a time.
“Pat is such a good cook,” Brooke said. “It was a huge success, but it was exhausting.”
For the guests, Brooke performed a few songs from “My Mother” and even accommodated requests in what amounted to a living-room concert for four. “We naively dove into it,” Rains said. “The people were amazed that we didn’t vet them further.”
“They were more protective of us than we were of ourselves,” Brooke said.
“In retrospect,” Rains concluded, “we were silly to do it.”
Perhaps. But it sure sounds like potential fodder for another play: “Strangers at Our Kitchen Table.”