Musician Jonatha Brooke has written a new play that chronicles her mother’s descent into dementia. “My Mother Has 4 Noses” opened Off-Broadway last month, a little more than two years after the death of the singer-songwriter’s mom, Darren Stone Nelson, who in various guises was a circus clown, a published poet and a committed Christian Scientist—a fact that strained their relationship as her illness worsened.
Brooke sat down with NBC 4 New York at The Duke on 42nd Street to talk about her mother, and the process of putting together a play about such a non-traditional subject.
Most of the songs included in “4 Noses” have just been released on a 12-track record. At the end of the Q&A, you’ll find video of the song “Time,” featured in the show.
NBC4NY: Let’s start by explaining that mysterious title.
JONATHA BROOKE: I called it “My Mother Has 4 Noses” because my mother actually did have four noses. She was a clown, so she did have her clown nose. But she also had skin cancer, and that led to some surgery, which led to a prosthetic nose. And of course, when they make you one, they have to make you four, because there are four seasons, and perhaps in the summer you might get more freckled. As mom succumbed to dementia, she got funnier and funnier, especially about the noses. She would lose them. Or hide them. And the daily drama with her caregivers was: “Whatever you do, don’t lose the noses! If you can’t find them, check the wastebaskets!”
NBC4NY: “4 Noses” gets irreverent. I appreciated the story about what happened after your mom decided flushing the toilet was too expensive—she would “parcel out the flushes.”
JB: Right before mom died, this crazy stuff happened that couldn’t have been funnier, and that little brain of mine splits into pieces and can see the funny in this bizarrely tragic moment.
NBC4NY: What else did she do that caught you off guard?
JB: She loved my husband, Pat, and she would always hug him. And there was this one really demented moment where she pulled away from Pat and started squeezing him. And she said: “Golly, you are built. Now, did I have you first, or did this one here?” Some kids would’ve been creeped out, but we thought it was the funniest thing in the world, because she was such a flirt.
NBC4NY: Did you sit down to write a play about dementia, or were you writing songs as your mother’s illness progressed, and at some point you realized there was this thread?
JB: I had the songs “The Wind” and “My Misery.” I was writing them right before mom moved (from Boston to Brooke’s apartment building in New York), while there was this sense of impending crisis. “The Wind” is a very intense examination of dementia: “The wind blows right through you/You’re hollow as a shell.” Mom was disappearing, and the idea of writing about it and turning it into something happened fast on the heels of those two songs..
NBC4NY: I loved a story you tell about being invited to a songwriter’s conference in Malibu in the autumn of 2011, toward the end of your mom’s life.
JB: These world class songwriters were flying in from all over the world, and even my mother rallied and said: “You really should do this, Boolie”—that was her nickname for me—“It’s important to care for yourself.” So I went, and they must have thought I was crazy, because I was alternately crying and laughing hysterically. And we’re writing these crazy pop songs about sex and breaking up, and hoping to pitch them to Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry, and yet my mother's dying across the country in New York, so my brain is this frazzled piñata.
NBC4NY: While you were there, you found a kalimba and started writing. You knew what it was?
JB: Yes, because there’s a kalimba on my very first record. I’m sitting at the kitchen table at midnight, and I started playing this little thumb piano, and this song appears out of nowhere. And of course, I’m crying as I’m writing it, and I’m just trying to get it down. It’s called “Time.” And it’s weird, because as I was writing this song, I was envisioning its place in the play.
NBC4NY: You were working in a studio in the home of Richard Page, the lead singer of the ’80s band Mr. Mister. So presumably this was an instrument he owned?
JB: Yeah. And I didn’t take it with me when I went home, because he wasn’t there to ask. But this song haunted me, and I got home and I went straight back into “crisis” mode, and I ended up e-mailing him and saying: “I wrote this song while I was in your studio, and it’s really depending on that kalimba you have. Is there anyway I can buy it from you?” And he wrote back and said: “Well, why don’t I just loan it to you.” So now I’ve used it on two other songs, including one (“Choose Your Battles”) I wrote with Katy Perry that’s on her new album.
NBC4NY: But you’ve got to get the kalimba back to him at some point?
JB: I do! I’ve e-mailed him. But he hasn’t responded. So I’m assuming he’s not missing it.
NBC4NY: You toured several cities with “4 Noses” before bringing it to New York. Has there been a common thread in the feedback from theatergoers?
JB: The best comment is just: “What a tribute to your mother.” I’m telling a complicated story, and I want that current of unconditional love between us to be what people walk away with. There’s so much other stuff that happens, I wondered: Are people going to be offended by the sarcastic elements here and there? But a lot of them tell me: “I’ve got to go call my mother.” Which, you know, is just wicked sweet.
“My Mother Has 4 Noses,” through May 4 at The Duke on 42nd Street. Tickets: $55-$75. Call 646-223-3010, or visit dukeon42.org/Shows/2014/4Noses.aspx.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn