"Hey, want to go see a one-man show by a gluten-free vegan Jesus-loving gay Buddhist from the South who says homeopathy, dream interpretation and psychedelics changed his life?"
If your answer was anything less than "absolutely," you haven't met someone like Malcolm Smith.
Smith debuts his one-man show, ātman, this weekend at the Railyard Performance Space, after working with story coach and director Tanya Taylor Rubinstein. I had the same hesitation you likely had in reading the description, but I decided to take a chance. In order to show me the play before its brief one-weekend debut, Smith, who lives in Oregon, offered a private performance of the 80-ish-minute monologue at the Airbnb he's staying in just out of town.
I arrived to the idyllic compound of dome houses nestled among junipers and fruit trees to see that Smith has prepared what he'd described in his invite email as "healthy snacks."
I was expecting maybe a store-bought veggie tray. Instead, I found broiled eggplant slices with a creamy vegan cashew-basil sauce topped with sliced tomatoes and crunchy sprouts. With my snacking expectations promptly dashed, I figured my anticipation of an inaccessible woo-woo monologue could be mislaid as well.
While all of Smith's marketing materials for the show are accurate, in essence, they seem a little mystical and lofty. The press release describes the piece as "the humorous true story of a man led by an inner guide to his own awakening," and "a way to describe that unique aspect of each person who is both a part of us AND a part of the Divine with its infinite wisdom." While, if sincere, these are charming concepts, there is just so much disingenuous spiritual psychobabble out there that it's easy to get numb to it.
It's a pleasure to learn, then, that they don't quite express the down-to-earth warmth and relatability of Smith, whose journey takes us from the Presbyterian churches of North Carolina to backstage at New York's prestigious theaters to intense retreats with the African psychedelic herb iboga.
The performance clips along at a perfectly measured pace, full of non-cartoony impressions of Smith's family in effortless Southern twang. We are introduced first to 6-year-old Smith as he realizes in one fateful visit to a men's locker room how unconventional his family is—and that he is attracted to boys. He brings us up through his childhood and adolescence, painting a charming and funny portrait of parents who are quite supportive of his strange endeavors, including social experiments that use his bedroom as a lab.
We thus see Smith's insatiable curiosity, including interest in the inner-workings of elevators, which provides an exhilarating tale of his art-school self battling the jocks of Boston University in his 13-story dorm building. Smith becomes coy and playful as he relates stories about acting in the world premiere of The Normal Heart at New York's Public Theater in 1985. While playing Tommy Boatwright, he says, "I was a gay man, pretending to be a straight man pretending to be a gay man;" he opted to stay closeted for fear of losing acting gigs in the city during the height of the AIDS epidemic. But a chance encounter with a stranger (and that stranger's genitalia) on a subway car late one night eventually changes his attitude toward living in secret.
All of this is not even half of Smith's story, which really takes off once a chance encounter with a homeopath in a health food store changes the course of his life.
The tale flies at this point, tumbling avalanche-style into experiences with psychedelics, deep emotional revelations concerning his father's ileostomy bag and his eventual understanding of "night school." That's what Smith calls his dreams, which have become an important part of both his homeopathy practice as well as his own self-discovery and his relationship with his ātman, or inner self; it's "the little God in each of us," Smith says, "attending to our awakening, and sometimes just babysitting us when we end up way off course, as we all do."
Does it sound woo-woo and maybe weird? Absolutely. Is it? Perhaps. But is ātman also touching, relatable, non-judgmental and, to be honest, really quite funny?Definitely.
It's a lesson in loving what you discover as you go; in searching for the truth and accepting it when you find it, no matter how difficult it may be. ātman is a journey of the mind and an adventure for the heart, right through its eviscerating yet heartwarming ending, and Smith is just the guide we need.
Homeopathy and Dreamwork Lecture
2-4 pm Sunday Sept. 29. Free; admittance only with ticket stub from performance. Location to be announced.