As true as my memories are true
The last show I saw by Amy Virginia Buchanan took place somewhere in Brooklyn and involved a ukulele, some acrobatics, and a pot of chili cooked onstage to be shared with the audience at the end of the show. She had me at hello — I am a sucker for shows that involve cooking onstage.
Amy is an engaging storyteller (and person), and The Michael Show was yet another example of her ability to collect a dynamic community around her. Chatting with the person next to me in the audience before the start of the show, I learned that he met Amy through the Spring Street Social Society, of which she is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director. He quipped that Amy is so magnetic, “She knows a welder!” Amy employed this charm to her full advantage as a one-woman performer, asking a front row audience member to hold her ukulele for the duration of the show, and responding directly to audience members with loud laughs.
The Michael Show tells the story of Amy’s older brother, Michael, who has Down Syndrome. She emphasized that it is her story, told from her perspective, writing in her program note, “The Michael Show is as true as my memories are true. However, it is also my own experience and no one else’s. My mom might tell you a very different version of the exact same story. In fact, I know she would, because her version would have less cursing. And my dad’s would be more succinct. And I would sound like a bigger goofball in the version told by my brother Peter. And Michael wouldn’t even bother with half of these stories because he’s already off in his bedroom singing the entirety of The Best of Garth Brooks. This much talk is boring!” Her frankness made room for the audience to relate openly to the story — it’s okay to laugh at the funny parts, to be uncomfortable at the challenging parts, and to cry when it’s sad.
Amy’s narrative structure was strong, bookending the show in song and opening with relatable, explanatory material before building her way up to the more difficult moments and emotions. Her text was supported by good, simple staging, employing a chair and a stool that she used to personify other characters in the story and vary her blocking.
Early in the show, Amy laid out her feelings about “performing special needs,” and her general distaste for performers who make uninformed choices about portraying characters with special needs, for comedic effect. She also explained her visceral upset when people use the word “retarded,” once again due to the ignorance it portrays. She acknowledged that it is difficult and serious to broach the subject of people with special needs, and that consequently most people prefer to avoid it entirely.
Yet for Amy, when Michael is sick, she feels like “there is a piece of my heart walking around outside of my body, somewhere very far away, so fragile, and there is nothing I can do to protect it.” This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that it’s really difficult to talk to her friends about Michael, because as good as their intentions are, and as much as they can sympathize, they can’t truly empathize. It’s an isolating grief, and a never-ending one. She says, “I don’t think my mom has ever let go of the fear of Michael stopping breathing in his sleep.” Admissions like this dropped like anchors throughout the performance, giving the audience a sense of the true gravity of her family’s reality. I appreciated her honesty in opening up to her audience in a way I assume she normally can’t talk about these stories, family trauma, and personal struggles.
However, I had mixed emotions about Amy’s role as a sister versus her role as a performer in this show. Amy was conscious of the line she was walking, and shared her internal struggle with the audience, with lines like, “I think that anyone who creates art based on their own existence has to at least once a week look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves out loud, ‘Am I a sociopath?’” I appreciated this honest examination of her own role as an artist, using the stories of the people in her life to further her own creative expression.
That said, I was admittedly unnerved by the moments where Amy got choked up. Looking through the script, there is only one textual indication that she should start to cry, and so I am still unclear as to whether the other tearful moments were a product of actual overwhelming emotion or an artistic choice. I take no umbrage with tears — this was a difficult story to tell and there was hardly a dry eye in the house by the end of it. However, Amy was able to regain her composure so quickly each time that I was constantly unsure whether we were watching the “real” Amy, or the staged characterization of herself. Amy was, of course, both simultaneously, but this slipping of the mask threw me off-guard each time.
Amy says, “Part of why I’m performing this is because I want to make an honest theatre piece about something that actually matters.” In this way, the show is an unqualified success. And yet, I wish Amy had let it all hang out a little more — really cry, if she was going to cry — because we were with her all the way.
Ultimately, Amy was emphatically dedicated to celebrating Michael with this performance. The Michael Show is, after all, a routine that he puts on in the family living room in Fargo, North Dakota every night, à la Jay Leno or David Letterman. She tells us, “We all expected the worst of him, and he gave us the best, which is usually the case.” I may never meet Michael in person, but I am certainly grateful for this heartfelt introduction.