by Mary Hubert
When I walked into the Royal Room in Columbia City two Sundays ago to see Tina Vernon’s show “NOTE TO SELF, An Evening of Storytelling and Music”, I expected to sit through a beautiful but fairly standard music set. The only thing I knew about Tina was that she is quite the singer, known for soul, jazz, and rock pieces. So, when I plopped down at my table, I opened my notebook and wrote “T Vernon Music Review” at the top, fully expecting to hear some nice tunes and whisk myself away at the end of an hour or so.
Needless to say, I was utterly unprepared for the actual nature of this piece.
Tina began her show with a cheerful hello, followed by: “I want to tell you all… I just hit the fuck it button”. This inspired a laugh from a few members of the sleepy-looking audience, and made me sit up a little in my seat – I’ve always been a fan of leveling with the crowd.
She continued: “I’d like to invite you to play with us for a bit. You are officially in my playhouse”. And with that, she was off in a warm-up of sorts, though as much for the audience as for those onstage, improvising songs with the musicians she had brought along. The pieces were a mix of previously written lyrics, made up vocalizations, and tunes snatched out of mid-air by the band she had assembled for this night only. They all played together in the “playhouse” that Tina had constructed for about fifteen minutes, without pretension or apology.
And certainly, no apology was required. For though I was ultimately mistaken about where the hour would take me, I did get one thing right: The woman can sing. Tina has a beautiful voice, equal parts smooth, sultry, and soulful. This, paired with her natural confidence and investment in having a conversation with her audience, grabbed me from the get-go. From the start of this jam session, Tina had plucked me out of my seat and pulled me along for the ride.
From here, Tina briefly explained that she had recently taken a trip to Havana, Cuba, and some surrounding towns. She is in the process, she said, of writing a multimedia piece inspired by her experience as an outsider – but an outsider who feels at home – in Cuba. She then moved on to sharing the segments of her piece that she has currently written. She called an actress up to read scene excerpts from the piece’s script. These were broken up by music, which she performed with the musicians onstage. These musicians additionally played in conjunction with the script to add flavor and variety, and also during the slideshow of pictures from the trip that she shared after the script was read.
The script conveyed an anger with foreigners, a disgust at white entitlement. Tina’s language is beautiful, and the combination of music and words flowed together moderately well, with a few flaws. The script was written in a mix of Spanish and English, which was for the most part well done, but sometimes felt forced. The songs in the transitions between the scene clippings were jazzy American standards done in English. This was lovely, but felt a bit out of place, especially given the context of an outsider looking at a non-American world and feeling at home in this new place. I yearned for music that spanned outside the traditional American repertoire, or at least that moved between the two worlds with the same ease that the words did.
Tina additionally incorporated some sound design constructed by a local designer to add additional tone to the piece. I found this aspect of the presentation overbearing, and would have preferred simply the musicians, Tina, and Yesenia. The flash of non-organic sound seemed out of place and jarring, and took me out of the beautiful dialogue being created between onstage performers and captive audience.
After the slideshow, script, soundscape and songs came to an end, Tina left us with an encouragement to visit Cuba, to see the places she saw, and to continue following her journey as she constructs this piece. And with that, and a few more songs, the piece ended. And I was left to muse on what I had participated in.
At one point in the evening, Tina characterized herself as a musician first, a playwright second, and this rang true for the entire event – not in the sense that her writing was lacking, but rather that everything she did was bursting with musicality. The dialogue between characters had a decisive beat to it, and her scene descriptions read like song lyrics. I found myself enjoying these descriptions more than the dialogue itself, and it made me almost wish that the incomplete nature of the play would last, rather than Tina’s voice being enveloped by those of her characters. The music breathed life into and ultimately carried the show, and I sensed how intrinsic it was to all of Tina’s work.
However, Tina also labeled herself as an interdisciplinary artist, and I fervently hope that she continues branching out into this territory. She uses things fluidly, organically, spurning cues and fixed “moments” in favor of spur-of-the-moment creation and levelling with the audience that makes her own her disarray in a way that is refreshing and enticing. This, for me, is the best way to use multiple artistic mediums in a compelling manner. In this sense, despite the messiness of the night, Tina ultimately succeeded in telling her first stab at this story.
True, the piece was disjointed, a presentation of elements that have inspired her writing rather than a conscious construction of a narrative. However, the thread of Tina’s trip to Cuba linked the scattered parts of her storytelling in a palpable way, and the uniqueness of being able to participate in a fellow artist’s process real-time kept me engaged. Ultimately, this hour long show-and-tell made me more invested in the final product, and got me thinking about the pressure we place on ourselves as writers to present a finished story without hinting to anyone how we got there. It was refreshing to hear someone talk about their ideas without a goal of selling or gift-wrapping them for the viewers.
With the challenge “You get what you give”, Tina encouraged us all to interact with her work, emotionally, vocally, physically, politically. I felt drawn in, though I never left my seat. Maybe we gave a lot, or maybe she just did us a favor, but either way I walked away feeling like I had received a true gift from a brilliant performer.
The Bottom Line: Though some parts of Tina Vernon’s idea-presentation were unfocused, ultimately her commitment to creating an open dialogue about a new project, coupled with her talent, led to an incredible night that made me walk away eager to see where this project takes her. Watch out for this woman, and whatever the next iteration of her story is.
Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.