Bill Bowers, the best American mime of his generation, is at it again; presenting his solo show of mime and story telling, Beyond Words, in New York. In 2011, Bowers had a hit run of this show at Urban Stages. This time, it is part of the All for One Theater Festival at the Cherry Lane Theater. At first glance, this is a performance about manhood. Bower's tells us this, up front. The show was inspired by the sentimental poem his parents received about "bringing up a boy," pinned to his blue baby blanket in the hospital in 1959, as a kind of whimsical "instruction manual" for new parents. Bowers tells us he wants to explore just what goes into the making of a boy, which will of course reflect also on the making of a man. Bowers was born in a small town in Montana, a place where manly men became ranchers, lumberjacks, and farmers. But because he realized he was gay from a young age, this particular boy knew he could never be the kind of man that his surroundings seemed to require.
A gay coming of age story is not exactly groundbreaking, and for a time it seems that is all that is going to be presented. But then there come other vignettes, some done entirely as mime to a soundtrack of sound effects or music, some done mostly as story-telling, and the tone begins to shift. There's the story of Mean Uncle Davey, who is keeping a secret the only way he knows how. There's the story of the teacher wrongly accused of molesting boys in his care, adapted from the novel Winesburg, Ohio. In the most disturbing section, the death of Matthew Shephard is re-enacted from the point of view of the young boy on a bicycle who stumbles on the dying boy crucified in barbed wire. Bowers has now taken the audience far afield from the original poem on a baby blanket; or, just maybe, he's turned a corner and made the show both wider and deeper.
Almost three-quarters through the evening, a long story-telling set piece about Bower's week as a visiting artist in a small Montana town seems, at first, to stick out like a straight man at a Madonna concert. For a time, it seems as if Bowers has lost track of his narrative, as he goes into great detail about his time entertaining schoolchildren, giving master classes, and providing feedback to the local community theater cast of "Oliver." But the subtext is all there; unexpectedly, Bowers is showing what stereotypes are all about. The small town people he fears will be intolerant of his gay identity turn out to be thoroughly accepting, down to the local bar flies. Then Bowers pulls off the magic trick; he paints a picture for us of a developmentally disabled woman attending his final performance in the town, who, he is told, "will probably be disruptive," because she often speaks random words at the top of her lungs. Instead of the expected disruption, she brings unexpected grace: in response to Bower's artistry, the woman in the wheel chair and the pink football helmet responds with one word, over and over: "love." With a combination of evocative physical theater and story-telling charm, he slowly but surely turns an audience from knowing laughter toward something close to universal truth.
The crime of stereotyping is that it prevents us from seeing who's really before our eyes. When bigots see gay men and think "faggot," they can't see a human being there. When sophisticated New Yorkers see Montana farmers and think "yokel," it is the same. The only ones who get it right in Beyond Words are the residents of Choteau, Montana, and most of all one particular resident; the woman in the pink helmet and the wheelchair, who rocks back and forth chanting "love" in response to seeing a gay man who speaks with his body and sings with his words.
In the last moments on stage, Bowers, who began the show as a convincing wonder-filled boy of six, is now a father to his own boy. And instead of some heavy-handed sermon about the ways gay men can be great fathers, Bill Bowers shows instead of tells; holding the baby boy in his arms, he harkens back to the woman in the wheelchair, who really knew what she was talking about. He whispers to his boy the only instructions about manhood that really matter, in the end: "love." And that is beyond amazing.
Beyond Words, directed by Scott Illingworth, with sound design by David Margolin-Lawson, can be seen at the United Solo Festival on October 26th at 1pm, at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York's Greenwich Village.