Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) by Michael Mack
A One-Man Play About a Mother’s Schizophrenia
Few works of art are as forceful a commentary on severe mental illnesses and how they affect individuals and their families than Michael Mack’s one-man play, “Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues).” The play’s subject: growing up with a mother who has schizophrenia.
It’s a series of scene poems, as Mack calls them, acted by this poet-playwright and directed by Manny Frenz. Mack’s lanky frame, chiseled face and flexible voice are transformed from moment to moment to bring so many different characters to life. He’s performed his work across the country, in theaters, churches, medical schools, community organizations and other venues to enthusiastic reviews and to heartfelt personal responses from audience members. Many have had first-hand experiences painfully similar to those Mack’s play depicts, and they express gratitude for Mack’s ability to express feelings they’ve long harbored. Mack’s message resonates because of its truth—a many-faceted, even convoluted truth of sadness, ache, factual information, humor, confusion—but above all, love. Mack’s play is infused with it. It is the constant emotion that back-lights everything else in the play.
First and foremost, Mack is a poet—a word expert. He manipulates the rhyme, rhythm and repetition of well-chosen words with great artistic aplomb and to great emotional effect. He proves that poetry is a powerful vehicle for conveying a deeply personal story that takes place against the vast sweep of time. His is a heartbreaking story of complex, changing emotions growing out of the scary, suffering world of a human being with a diseased mind – his mother.
Mack’s words evoke childhood memories, songs, auditory hallucinations, jokes, fun. His words recall the spoken words of his mother, his father, his teachers and playmates.
We hear the written words of his own school projects; of letters written by his uncle, who, also suffering from a mental illness, took his own life; didactic words that impart factual information about schizophrenia and about NAMI. Mack’s words are the ties that bind him to his past. “All I have is what I wrote. If not for that, I might not remember anything at all,” he says in one of the pieces.
Mack is also a convincing performer of his poems. He’s himself as a child. He’s his mother, who struggles through her life with a severe mental disease. He’s his father, near to overwhelmed by the deep responsibilities thrust upon him. He’s his playmates; he’s Frank Sinatra, with an uncanny resemblance; he’s a severe nun who was his teacher; he’s doctors; he’s disembodied voices; neighbors; friends; and he’s himself—the person he has become.
During the play’s course, Michael the child gradually grows older and more aware of his mother’s illness. We’re first brought into Mack’s early childhood world, where he didn’t quite understand that something was terribly wrong with mom, but he was sometimes confused and frightened by her behaviors and obvious inner torment.
He remembers road trips, taking mom to the hospital when she was near to being out of control, or visiting her at the poorly run, understaffed state hospitals of the 1960s. He remembers her psychotic episodes with religiously charged hallucinations. She once forced Mack to be on his knees for hours, praying. But, in his childish innocence, Mack uses the trauma as an excuse, amazingly effective, to get out of doing his homework—the child’s silver lining.
But the play’s center is Mack’s mother, Annie. Michael depicts his mother’s illness, complete with its frightening hallucinations and calamitous impact on the family, with unblinking accuracy and tenderness. How her disease ebbed and surged over decades; how she experienced homelessness and the blessing and curse of the older anti-psychotic medications causing her terrible side effects that Mack, the performer, makes all too palpable.
Mack takes care to involve the audience. With lights out, he performs the types of audio hallucinations—complete with carping, hostile voices—his mother experienced as do so many people with schizophrenia. It works. This is what it must be like.
While the play is focused on Mack’s life and his mother, it’s universally relevant to all consumers, their families, the people that treat them, policy makers, community leaders – everyone. And all of them should see this play. Mack is a poet, performer and a teacher, but this work establishes him as something else as well: an important advocate for consumers.
Please email Michael Mack directly for information on performances at mmack@MIT.EDU or visit his website at http://michaelmacklive.com
** Read more on Michael Mack in the Summer 2004 issue of Reintegration Today magazine. Want a subscription? Click here.