Sex, Drugs, Rock & Soul plays at the Vera Project, 305 Hamilton St., 956-8372, theveraproject.org. $20-$45. All ages. 6 & 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 27.
When Grace Love was 17, just because she wanted to, she rewrote the musical Grease. She had watched the 1978 movie version over and over, studying the dialogue, taking copious notes, making all her satirical changes; then she corralled a cast of 40 at her Tacoma high school to rehearse five days a week for three months. As a longtime theater geek, of course she wanted to play Sandy, but on her terms. She called the reimagined production Hair Grease—but instead of Sandy, she dubbed herself Shaniqua; instead of Danny, her counterpart was Dante.
It was probably one of the most fun things she’s ever done, she says now, laughing and nostalgic: “It was just a matter of being a nerd like that.”
A few years later, shortly after she played the lead in a Tacoma theater version of Ain’t Misbehavin’, her feisty, Southern food-cooking, Heath Ledger-loving, deeply supportive 48-year-old mother, Nadine, died of a massive heart attack. She was making tacos, Love remembers. The bereft daughter wasn’t able to eat tacos for a long, long time, but beyond that she didn’t have the opportunity to grieve properly; her father and brother depended on her too much, and she began to unravel. “After losing her, I lost focus of a lot of stuff,” she says. “When I needed someone to talk to, a best friend or anything, it was her.”
Meanwhile, she was also struggling with her identity as a bisexual woman who had grown up a pastor’s kid, “locked up in a world of ‘blah blah blah GOD blah blah blah GOD’ ”—a God who would never condone that kind of thing. “I was fighting with who I was and what I was; it was a lot of fighting.” She’d lost her mother, she loathed herself, and she began to self-destruct—she left town, first to Florida, then to New York, where a cousin lived, taking odd jobs and seeking oblivion. When her cousin wouldn’t take her in, she was devastated; drunk, stoned, and homeless, she wandered numbly from hostels to couches to front stoops in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Through all that, she was also writing a lot of songs—searing, raw coming-of-age songs. They swiftly organized themselves into another musical, a “phoenix story” about a young woman who’d lost her mother, spiraled out of control, hit a low point, then pulled herself out of the ashes through the cathartic power of music. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Soul, it was called. She put a few call-outs on Craigslist for actors and musicians, but everyone flaked; she had no budget, and it fell apart.
Until now, nearly a decade later. And why?
“This is gonna sound random,” she says, “but I’ve always been a chef.”
In fact, over the past year, while she’s been making a name for herself and her gorgeous contralto with her band the True Loves, Love has also been catering events, cooking in pop-up kitchens, and making vats of baked macaroni for the hungry musicians she records with. “I love music, don’t get me wrong,” she says, “but I love creating stuff from scratch. And food has always been that one thing, no matter how homeless I got. Food was the one thing I was good at . . . seeking out or making.”
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Soul, then, playing for one night at the Vera Project at the end of February, is fully a means to an end, a way to raise funds to start a pop-up cafe in her mother’s honor.
“My way of mourning is this cafe,” she says. “I gotta honor this lady.”
Love doesn’t want to reveal very much about the show, but on a basic level, let it be known that the musical’s plot follows its title: “There’s a bunch of sex . . . some drugs . . . I hit a rock . . . and then there’s soul!” she says.
It’s primarily a one-woman show, anchored in the deep, dazzling voice that has seduced audiences all over the region, but she’ll also be backed up by a small gospel choir, a band, and an aerialist, all volunteers who popped out of the social-media ether just a few months ago. They sound like they’ve been together for years, though, Love insists—so good, she gets tingles at the back of her head just talking about them.
And because it’s musical theater, and the genre revels in ripe, exaggerated metaphors, the choir becomes the struggle, personified: a young woman’s search for meaning, put to song. “The choir, they’re my thoughts,” she explains. In this musical, and in her life, too, by the way, “I think in song. There’s no talking in my brain. As much as I wanna get away from it, it’s just musicals up there.”
But this particular musical couldn’t be farther from Hair Grease. It’s confessional, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s sad as hell—and you’re going to hear all that in her voice. “I just want the universe to know: This is who I am,” Love says. “I went through all this turmoil and all this heartache and music saved my life.” So bring some tissues; she definitely wants you to cry, “because for me, this is a release.” When she’s through with this performance, this homage to past pain, “I get to go, ‘Hands up. I’m done.’ I’m letting go of that part of my life.”
Sara Bernard writes about environment and education, among other things, for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy.