“Time eez vaiting in de vings!” a stentorian voice booms through the telephone receiver.
This is what happens if one reveals the least bit of incredulity to critically-lauded cult actress Karen Black when told she performs David Bowie’s “Time” as a German torch singer. The moment – though awkward – convinces, and stands as a preview of sorts to the myriad other characters and tunes Black performs in her one-woman show, A View of the Heart, at Mill Valley’s 142 Throckmorton Theatre.
Black made her name in such seminal 60s and 70s films Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces (which garnered an Oscar nod for “best supporting actress”). Sometime in the midst of her career, however, Black became anointed with the mantle “cult actress” thanks, in part, to the stream of art-house and horror flicks that dot her resume like so many droplets of fake blood. Her cult-status was sanctified when a goth band adopted the cheeky name The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black in tribute to the actress.
Throughout her career, however, Black has remained sanguine about the choices she’s made and only very rarely permits doubt, let alone fear, enter her consciousness – unless she is about to go onstage.
“I think it’s the pretty much the scariest thing I’m involved with in my life,” says Black about her show during a recent phone interview. “In fact, I don’t experience fear that much, but it certainly is scary doing a one-woman show. I have a great time once I get onstage. It’s really a wonderful and amazing experience.”
In A View of the Heart, Black portrays several characters, running the gamut from a poor African-American woman from the Mississippi Delta to a would-be wealthy divorcee. Interspersed are “stand-up” readings from American literary luminaries such as Catherine Ann Porter and William Faulkner.
Black shaped the production over a decade ago with director Toni Basil, who sought to harness the actress’s versatility as a singer. The duo sifted through 500 songs before alighting on what would become the production’s soundtrack, culled from the songbooks of, among others, Rodgers & Hart, Bessie Smith and Kris Kristofferson. Black also performs her own original material as a well as, of course, a David Bowie tune.
Black first brought her show to the Bay Area in 1995 as part of San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival. Reviews were generally positive (Chronicle critic Steven Winn wrote in 1995, “It’s compelling and a little scary to hear Black go for broke over and over in her hourlong show.”) and the show was remounted a year later at the Plush Room.
“It’s changed. I think there’s a little bit more contiguity, a re-viewing of certain concepts of loneliness or isolation,” says Black of the show’s intervening evolution. “In the end, it looks into lives of these people. There is a kind of camaraderie with the audience, it’s almost as if they are onstage with me. It’s just these little glimpses into these lives. They’re real people who are in their lives and sing a song for you. It’s a good theatrical piece in many ways.”
Her forays onto the floorboards notwithstanding, Black remains busy as a film actress and has appeared in a slew of independent films in recent years (including San Francisco director Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Technolust with Tilda Swinton) and she still occasionally turns up in studio-produced fright-fare like rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses. Black also has been developing her own projects as a writer-director and is currently rehearsing a play in Los Angeles that she wrote herself.
“What is being communicated is very different onstage from the screen,” says Black about her present career paths. “The emphasis of the words, the sound of the words, the emotion and interaction is all. Whereas on film, it’s so visual, that could never be all.”
Though Black says she doesn’t prefer the stage over the screen, she does allow that the immediacy of a theatrical audience provides emotional opportunities for the performer that films often do not.
“Onstage, the audience has more of a personality and you feel a real emotional attraction. In the past, there were some songs in the show where we wept together. There were women eating their fantail shrimp at a table underneath my foot and we were kind of crying together. On the other hand, I guess I always feel softly in communication with everyone.”
When it is suggested that the need to communicate might be the impetus for one to become a performer, Black finds the observation facile and says plainly “I don’t think anyone knows why they’re doing it. But I think communication is the most important single concept in our lives.”
Black takes a moment to weigh her words.
“Do I think that?” she asks herself rhetorically. “No. I think affinity is the most important – I’m for affinity. I think that’s central. Affinity, empathy, I think that’s really central. I think that devoting your life to an aspect of communication is, to me, the most honorable and finest thing you can do with your life.”
The pronouncement comes, as Black explains after a moment, “in response to all this doggerel, that artists are weird or strange,” she says. “Artists are smart. They enjoy their lives, they love what they do and they’re devoted to tomorrow. I don’t know if the plumber is, I don’t know if the lady in the bank is.”
We can assume Karen Black is.
A View of the Heart plays at 8 p.m., November 30 and December 7 – 10 and at 5 p.m. December 11. Receptions follow some shows. Tickets: Preview Show $35 General $60 Show & Reception, Other Shows $25 General $20 Students/Seniors, A limited number of $60 reception tickets are available for selected nights.
For more information, go to 142throckmortontheatre.com or call (415) 383-9600.