Ethelyn Friend is a wonderful performer. Working alone in the intimate upstairs theater space of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, she holds her audience spellbound for over an hour as she tells the story of her two grandmothers, both classically trained singers.
Songs My Grandmothers Taught Me consists of interviews with Friend's family and songs her grandmothers performed -- though Friend herself never heard either of them sing. Passages from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" provide a framework; the setting is a chair with a tapestry seat, a small round table covered by a lace doily and a huge, decorated book placed on the floor at the front of the stage.
That's about all there is to it. Except that in this small place, Friend creates a series of absolutely distinct, clear, emotionally rich and fully inhabited characters: her father; a catty old great aunt; a second great aunt who's Southern and kindly; and -- in a very loving portrait -- her own mother. And she sings. This piece is all about voice and the fact that for generations, women's voices were silenced. Not only does Friend give herself fully to each song, but she sings it in the style of the relevant grandmother. We learn that at one point, Grandmother Marguerite tried out for the voice of Snow White in the Disney film, and Friend re-creates the audition, singing "I'm Wishing" with rich, chest-heaving drama. The auditioner seems to ask for a less operatic rendition. Friend obliges with a cutesy little voice, as sweet and pure as a white Disney dove. He asks her to sing the song again, this time as she feels it, and she's momentarily stymied. Then she produces a version that swings through regular speech, lyricism, rage, grief and a yearning incoherence.
Friend's performance illustrates how eloquent, flexible and expressive a voice can be, and how unerringly singing calls forth feeling -- in both listener and performer.
It has largely left our collective memory that, until roughly the 1970s, most women routinely gave up their careers and aspirations when they married. Those who persisted often paid a price; they were treated like outcasts, their work mocked and belittled. It's clear that Songs My Grandmothers Taught Me was created in part to redeem these stifled lives.
Still, the piece has its limitations. Though the two grandmothers were very different women, the arc of their lives and the loss of their singing careers were similar. The family members interviewed, no matter how elegantly brought to life by Friend, tend to have somewhat the same observations, and the general tone of love and loss never varies. The relevance of Andersen's Little Mermaid, who gave up her tongue and her freedom under the sea for love of a prince, is obvious from the beginning and doesn't deepen as the evening progresses. Early in Songs, Great Aunt Jill gives a smugly vicious assessment of her sister Marguerite's talent. It's a delicious moment; the play could use a little more of that kind of spice.
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