Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, written and performed by Billy Hayes and currently at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a profound and illuminating theatrical experience that will leave you uplifted and inspired.
Directed by John Gould Rubin, the production is a reexamination of Hayes’s experiences in Turkey in the 1970s, when he was smuggling hashish, caught, and given a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Some of the gruesome aspects of the story were chronicled in the film Midnight Express.
Many were not. This Off Broadway production sheds a bright light on events the film left out, some harrowing and some magnificent. Though the film was based loosely on Hayes’s book Midnight Express, whole swaths of experience were eliminated and fabrications added. This show is Hayes’ revelation about the full truth of his past and how it influenced his journey into the present.
Since Hayes’s solo performance relates to the film, it is necessary to review why the impact of this one-man show is so vital by comparison. When it was released in 1978, Midnight Express received worldwide acclaim and garnered 16 awards including two for Best Writing (screenplay based on material from another medium) and Best Music (original score). It even received a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the category of Drama. If they didn’t read the book, people believed Oliver Stone’s screenplay. It portrayed Hayes’s rollicking jaunt to Turkey, his arrest, his unjust trial, and his ghoulish nightmare after being sentenced to a life in the abomination of desolation: the Turkish prison. The audience was kept in suspense and horror watching the character’s devolution in prison and his nullifying flirtation with insanity. When Hayes unbelievably escapes, easily walking out into freedom without being seen by anyone, the audience feels tremendous relief that the hell is over and Hayes is free.
In Hayes’s live performance we discover that this “walk-out” did not happen, and what did was far more frightening. Indeed, his real escape to freedom took much longer and was a desperate, gripping survival story. As Hayes relates it, we cannot help but be astounded by each miraculous event that, domino-style, brought him closer to freedom. The “walk-out” as presented by the filmmakers was sheer Hollywood gloss and actually a diminution of Hayes’s character, resourcefulness and inner strength.
What particularly makes his one-man show so engrossing and compelling is Hayes‘s natural spontaneity. With his fine acting talents (he is a writer, actor and director), he aptly conveys the full import of and real events relating to his capture, arrest, trial, prison time and incredible escape. What is equally edifying is the discussion of his life afterward and his personal growth as an individual, a social advocate and a culturally dynamic American.
As we watch Hayes deliver his unexpurgated account, we are able to receive it in the entirety of its depth and detail. Unencumbered by any restraints, Hayes finally has free reign. Through his vibrant descriptions and vivid language we understand his thoughts, his unique perspectives; we come to know the mind of Billy Hayes. His performance is one of unbounded clarity. Hayes expresses the soul of an age that is current and ongoing. To say the message is life-giving is an understatement.
As we receive the truth of his presence, the deep issues and themes of freedom, love, enlightenment and growth become more real and heartfelt than what the film ever could convey. Indeed, Hayes understands the essence of his life’s journey. We recognize its vitality and note that it has far-reaching implications for our culture and society today. With great courage Hayes bares his soul and our souls follow, opened to his immeasurable riches of spirit. The film was a mere shadow of what he effects and gives us in this performance over 35 years later.
Whether it was intentioned or not, the film was a cautionary tale that delivered lessons about the Muslim world and more specifically, Turkey. First, that Turkey was a brutal country and its prisons cesspits; one should not travel there as a lark to flout the laws. Second, that Turkish justice was no justice.
Considering U.S. politics in the 1970s, the film was a boon for American culture, and Billy Hayes was a hero. The film encouraged a feeling of patriotism (at a time when the culture needed this). Against Turkey and other Muslim countries, it spawned a host of travel warnings for Americans abroad. In its associative portrayal of hashish and marijuana, it was a negative advertisement. Though marijuana and hashish, its concentrated form, were plant-based drugs, un-patentable and used medicinally and recreationally across many cultures for millennia, Nixon’s “war on drugs” (related to Hayes’ prison sentence) sealed their doom. In the Q&A after his performance, Hayes’s commentary about the film’s impact (related to marijuana’s illegality, and many other issues) was fascinating.
Why filmmakers re-characterized Hayes’s experiences in prison, the Turkish court, and especially his escape is up for conjecture. In any case, the reality of what actually occurred as Hayes relates in his solo performance inspires hope, courage and peace. If that message was not politically or culturally efficacious for the time, so be it. But now a new generation of individuals will be exposed to the story. Its truth and its reckoning have finally come. This is a performance not to be missed.
Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is being presented by Barbara Ligeti with Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes. Co-producers are Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway and Joseph Trent Siff. The production is running through March 23 at St. Luke’s Theatre on 308 West 46th Street.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke emotionally climbed the mountains of the moon and plummeted to the depths of the abyss after she brought her mother to an apartment in NYC so she could care for her the last two years of her mom’s life. Her mom, published poet Darren Stone, had Alzheimer’s.
As Stone’s identity withered toward invisibility, a multiplicity of beings, characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients, emerged as she physically and mentally recreated herself with each new day. The disease took eminent domain of her mind and body parcel by parcel.
Jonatha and her mom accepted the challenge. They enacted their “greatest show on earth.” It was an all-encompassing adventure filled with drama and comedy, the mundane villains of aging (painful arthritis) and their comedic sidekicks (constipation from pain killers). Their surreal vision and dramatic courage helped pass the time as they worked through obstacles. And somehow together, they “got it all down.” Theirs was performance art which provided the raw material for a show which Jonatha Brooke would perform a year after her mom died.
By the time Stone left this plane, Brooke was ready. Mother and daughter had experienced the sublime end game in all of its beauty and beastliness. Brooke would learn to extirpate the horror of their most intimate and personal moments and keep the humor, longing, love and ethereality. By linking snippets of remembered conversation, exact quotes, and bits of her mom’s poems in a heady mix of narration and song, Brooke symbolizes the finest rhythms of those last two years. These snatches of life, brought to the stage in the one-woman musical My Mother Has Four Noses, are a precious human revelation.
One cannot witness this production, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, and remain untouched. Brooke’s work helps us recognize and appreciate the poetic rhythms in our own lives and the lives of those dearest to us. She has dug deep into her own empathy to distill the highlights of their mother-daughter love relationship. The potion she creates is readily drinkable and the unique, bittersweet taste lingers. We are better for her gently shaking our consciousness, reminding us that our bodies are mortal. We, too, will one day have to answer the hard questions about who we are and whether we are happy about what we have made ourselves into. We, too, will enact our finality alone or in a drama with others. In her remarkable endeavor, Brooke’s artistry is heartfelt and powerful and there is much you will take away to contemplate.
In Brooke’s seminal song “Are You Getting This Down,” the opening number, she reflects how she and her mom came to deal with fleshly mortality through spiritual and electric currents of love, joy and endurance. Brooke settles on shaping the bulk of the production around a motif that streams through both of their lives: her mother’s religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist. In the earlier years it was the bane of their relationship, a major point of disagreement. Jonatha never believed, while her mother remained a staunch follower of the religion which eschews medical interventions.
That refusal is the boulder which shatters Darren Stone again and again and sends her careening to Brooke for help in the crisis created by failing to seek out doctors. Brooke uses the crisis and Christian Science as an overarching metaphor in the production: the salvation which brings no salvation. For example, her mother resorted to the science of prayer in the community of Christian Scientists as she struggled against cancer. When the cancer ate away most of her face, she decided she wanted to survive and elicited Jonatha’s help. The intensive surgeries resulted in multiple reconstructions and prosthetics. Her mom’s life was saved, but her nose was sacrificed during the battle. Hence the title of the production. Indeed, Darren Stone had four noses, as both she and her daughter joked, one for each season.
During the course of the musical we learn of Darren Stone’s artistic bent as a writer, poet and clown: she used the clown makeup to hide the unsightly cancer. In the mother’s incredible portrait, we see the vibrant picture of the daughter. By the end of the production Darren Stone and Jonatha Brooke merge into one. It is not a coincidence that Jonatha takes a poem her mother wrote in 1950 and adds stanzas that she fashions into “Mom’s Song,” the last song of the performance. The song’s completion is a symbol of resolution. Theirs is a love that requires no atonement for unresolved regrets, but finishes with a “tear and a smile” flourish. It is how Jonatha Brooke is able to nightly perform herself and her mother with joy and poignance and humor.
How does one deal before, during and after taking care of someone who as they daily die before you is a confluence of contradiction: loving and recalcitrant, lucid and foggy, cooperative and fearfully resistant, funny and tragic, a “character,” who enters a daily new normal, someone who wants to die to avoid the pain, yet hold on and live with every ounce of fading strength? How indeed? If we receive the artistry of what Jonatha Brooke offers with her instrumental and vocal expertise and power of storytelling, we have the answer in a near-divine and indomitable love that flows between the lovers out into the audiences’ hearts.
My Mother Has Four Noses is produced by Patrick Rains. Musical Director, Guitar: Ben Butler. Cello: Anja Wood. Orchestrations by Jonatha Brooke and Ben Butler. The production will run at The Duke on 42nd Street until May 4.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.