Review: Heather Christian and Her Ghosts Impart Some Animal Wisdom
A new film brings a musical séance into your living room.
Americans have never been less attached to religion. According to Gallup, only 47 percent of Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque — and the fastest-growing religion in the United States is "none." But just because we are losing our taste for organized religion doesn't mean there isn't plenty of hunger for disorganized, even messy kinds of faith (if you don't believe me, you've obviously never sat in a gay bar and suffered through a sermon about your astrological chart). Enter Heather Christian and her idiosyncratic Louisiana mysticism, fascinatingly communicated through a show that is part concert and part séance.
I regret not catching Animal Wisdom when it was live at the Bushwick Starr in 2017 as I'm sure the ritual aspect of the performance felt even more immediate in that enchanted little theater. However, the new movie version, produced jointly by the Bushwick Starr, American Conservatory Theater, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (where it was filmed in March 2021) beautifully immortalizes Christian's extraordinary artistry and witchy intensity. Don't think that just because you're behind a screen, you're protected in a digital circle of salt: Christian is determined to turn your living room into a safe space for the spirits, and she has some assignments for you to help make it happen.
Seated at the piano, she opens with a song about "pretty well-made fish masquerading as a vine" and "Grandmother is a red bird." Before you have time to dismiss these lyrics as inaccessibly opaque, she explains how giant burrowing catfish threaten to plunge her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, into the river (the rock erosion had previously been attributed to Kudzu vines). And she also tells us matter-of-factly that her grandmother, upon her death, threw her ghost into a cardinal. Crystal clear, right?
Christian has the occasionally incomprehensible charisma of someone you might meet in an illegal loft party in Brooklyn after smoking a joint. She tells us that she comes from a long line of New Orleans women who can talk to dead people. She introduces us to the ghosts who have shaped her life, like her judgy piano teacher and the long-dead organist who built her childhood home (she was obviously fated to be a musician). She expounds on the mystical properties of Coca-Cola, and advises us never to sing in the car when it's raining because this is practically an invitation for a ghost to possess your vehicle. "People from Louisiana are superstitious," she confides into the camera halfway through the show. You don't say!
Yet even the most cynical nonbeliever will have trouble turning away from Christian's intricately woven yarn. I was personally most attracted to her distinctly American mythology, which seems to have no relation to Yankee Protestantism (the suffocating Kudzu of our national culture). Not only is she a captivating storyteller, but each song is a little masterpiece. Supported by bandmates Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow, and Maya Sharpe, Christian powerfully performs her original blues and gospel-infused score. You cannot help but marvel at her ability to find music in everything, from a metal candy dish to a slide projector.
"This is not a TV show, this is not a theater show," she states. "This is something else." And that is perfectly true during a 20-minute segment near the end of the film during which viewers are instructed to close their eyes and listen to what can only be described as a Requiem Mass straight from the Mississippi Delta. I heard a rousing Kyrie eleison, a hair-raising Dies irae, and a Sanctus to lift our lost souls up to heaven.
When we are allowed to open our eyes, we mostly appreciate Amber McGinnis's cinematic treatment of Emilyn Kowaleski's original stage direction. Christopher Bowser's acoustics-friendly set design of mismatched rugs and lamps helps to create an intimate sanctuary on screen, while his lighting seems to be powered by the intensity of the music. McGinnis and Kowaleski inventively use the backstage nooks of the theater to create a labyrinthine set that a live audience would normally not see, adding to that haunted house feeling. Unfortunately, the spell is somewhat broken when Christian and her band wander out into Woolly Mammoth's brightly lit lobby for an uptempo number. There is simply nothing magical about the concessions counter of an institutional theater.
That minor quibble aside, Animal Wisdom is worth watching, especially if you are interested in the future of musical storytelling in the theater. As stages open up across the country, I have no doubt that many of them will be eager to reserve time and space for Christian and her special brand of magic.