Posted May 25, 2015 by Jeff in Play/Drama/Performance

Jonatha Brooke: Taking a dramatic left turn

Jonatha Brooke
Jonatha Brooke

When her mother took ill a few years ago, singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke decided to become her caretaker. That meant she couldn’t tour and record new material. And yet, she didn’t turn her creativity completely off. She took notes on things her mother and did and eventually turned those notes into the one-woman play My Mother Has 4 Noses. The play makes use of original music and personal narrative to tell the story of her experience of caring for her late mother.  Songs such as “Are You Getting This Down?” feature elegant string arrangements and hushed vocals. Brooke phoned us from Minneapolis to talk about what she describes as a “musical play” that’s “sort of a hybrid.”

Talk about how you first came up with the idea for the play.
My mom was sort of on the decline. It was clear she had Alzheimer’s and she was going to need some serious attention. I’m the youngest and from the second that I started spending time with her and knew that I would take her in, I started writing stuff down. I thought it was a story that no one would believe unless I tell it. She was complicit. She was funny. She would ask me, “Are you writing this down because it’s going to make a very good play some day?” My life was on hold. I was going to be doing this for a while and I wasn’t going to be touring or making records. I thought there was something really beautiful and creative in the story that was unfolding.

Whose point of view is represented in these songs?
Some of them are from her point of view. The song “Are You Getting This Down?” in particular is her point of view. In the play, I don’t sing the full version that you hear on the record. I don’t sing the last verse because it gives it away. That’s the beauty of theater. You can chop things up and do a verse and a chorus here and insert a bridge that will take you to the final chorus and maybe the final story. You don’t tell the whole story. You let your audience intuit it, in a way.

What inspired the title?
If you see the play, you’ll realize it’s not a metaphor. My mother really did have four noses. I won’t give it all away, but she had skin cancer that did a number on her face.  Without getting into the comedy of the tragedy of it, we fixed her up at one point and she ended up with these prosthetic noses that were the stuff of comedy, especially as she became more and more demented.

I know the singing comes naturally to you. What about the acting?
That’s something that I didn’t see coming. People would tell me I was such a storyteller and that I was kind of acting. I told them that was something they would never see me do. Here I was Off-Broadway doing this play for 12 weeks. It’s something I have embraced. I would never say, “Now, I’m an actress.” But I am an actress in this piece and it has come as second nature.  It’s a lot of acting. I have to switch beats and modes and voices. I’m mimicking a lot of people’s voices. It’s really fun.

It’s a new challenge and that’s what I’m drawn to–kicking my own ass.

Did you workshop this play?
Yes. Jeremy Cohen, who’s directing the thing I’m doing now, invited us to The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. I had performed it in LA and Chicago and he gave us the space and time and wanted to hone in on it. We had the luxury of performing it four times in a row in four days. We realized that some things were funny all the time and others were falling flat needed to be fixed.

Plays seem so much different when they’re performed.
All these little theaters that are workshopping new works are the only way that a playwright can hear a play being brought to life. They can hear if it’s working. That happened with my play. I could see that the audience could see certain things and I knew when I was over-telling.

The play made its debut in early 2014. Has it changed since then?
It is the same. We locked it when we went to the Duke on 42nd Street. It had been through multiple workshops. It evolved a little bit but there was something so precious in a good way about how it ended up after those first few workshops. We didn’t want to mess it up. People really responded. They really got it. My biggest worry was balancing the comedy and tragedy. I didn’t want it to be too much of one or another. We really got that right and didn’t want to mess it up.

Do you plan to follow this play up with another one?
In the last few weeks I’ve started to think about writing something else. It’s also going to be personal but might involve more characters. I think it will involve music because I think that’s a compelling way to tell a story, to alternate from text into a song when a song will say it better. I do have an idea for a new thing. I don’t want to jinx it. It will be personal and about my world but I’m going to embellish it more. I’m around so many playwrights. I’m amazed at their output. They just crank the stuff out. They’re rewriting every day. I’m working on a play in Minneapolis and the playwright is fearless. He keeps rewriting and fixing scenes. I do that as a songwriter but it’s cool to see this other discipline up close and see the fearlessness of it.

You started out on the coffeehouse circuit. Do you look back fondly on those days?
I reflect fondly on all of it. It’s wild to look back and see your life passing before your eyes and all of these albums you put out and the tours and the schlepping across the world. I’ve done a lot of stuff and I’m very, very proud of it all. I got my start in church basements in Massachusetts. That was the whole coffeehouse scene. I was lugging my guitar around and trying my songs out. It’s great training for life and for anything. You have to be an athlete. You have to build your stamina. You have to keep your voice in shape and keep your body moving and keep creating. It’s been a great discipline to be doing this for so long and finding new challenges. That’s what I found exciting about this new phase. All of a sudden, I’m writing musicals and performing as an actor. I love it. Given the way the music business is falling down around us, I was wondering if I could sustain it. This is really exciting left turn that feels really open. There may be a future in it.

Upcoming 2015 Tour Dates












Alexandria, VA – Birchmere

Annapolis, MD – Rams Head on Stage

Malvern, PA – People’s Light & Theatre Company

Denver, CO – Daniels Hall, Swallow Hill

Walla Walla, WA – Main Street Studios

Bend, OR – Drake Park

Winston, OR – River Bend Park

Portland, OR – Alberta Rose Theatre

New York, NY – Naked Soul at the Rubin Museum of Art

Nashville, TN – Scarritt-Bennett Center

Nashville, TN – City Winery




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.