Resurrection In A Philly Dump: The Depth Of Performance Artist Martha McDonald

As a Philadelphia transplant of many years (my hometown is Baltimore), I have watched my adopted city bring cutting edge, innovative theatre that matches the quality and depth of any city in the world. A glowing example is the recent RAIR (Recycled Artists in Residency) production of the quietly riveting performance artist Martha McDonald's Song of Memory and Forgetting. The opening day performance and installation had been scheduled for June 5 at Revolution Recovery, a construction-waste recycling facility in north east Philly that regularly receives materials from home cleanouts, often after one has died or moves to a care center.

Though rains had stopped, the grounds and rubble where McDonald's hour long performance would take place (400 tons of materials are processed there each day) were too drenched and muddy to accommodate spectators. The day's two staging were postponed for Father's Day, the last day of the artist's performance, which my husband and I attended. And quite a Father's Day experience it was. Please read on.....

McDonald worked among the heaps and mountains of discard and seeming waste at the construction site for six months, gathering touching, often heartbreaking, mementos, those traditionally gathered and protected by wives and mothers. In the blistering heat (with water and portable chairs available) she walked and sang, pointing out the beauty and hope, the longing and connection, the loss and heartbreak in her found artifacts. The artist's music, in lilting voice, with poignant lyrics, her face reflecting sadness and as well as joy, flowed seamlessly. Most of the musical instruments she and her accompanist/collaborator, and RAIR cofounder, Billy Dufala used were also found among the ruins.

Before going further, a disclosure: I have known about Martha McDonald's dedication to bringing the historical role of women in our culture into awareness and dimension for over a decade, as she is a close friend of my step-daughter, Elizabeth Smullens Brass, a performance artist and Iyengar yoga teacher in Berlin. However, before this performance I had only seen her perform once and had never studied her work closely.

Picture this: On the bodice of McDonald's first costume were many brooches (I was too spellbound to count), their stones glistening in the bright sunshine. On a large table, as our group of about 30 entered the site, we saw beauty from cherished homes of no more -- lovely glassware, painted figurines, oh so many books, exquisite dishes, some very much like my late mother's. My eyes misted when I saw a small crystal pitcher, with touches of ruby red: I have its twin, which used to belong to my grandmother.

As McDonald added dress upon dress in graceful motion owners of her found treasures came to life, as did their journey from life to death, foreshadowing, of course, our own. We saw a son's blond hair from his first haircut, and his preciously preserved first shoes. We also saw a loving written request from his mother to bury her holding her treasured rosary, also found. Some of our group gasped, filled with internal questions: Why didn't this happen? What of our treasures? What of our wishes?

We saw the telegram from an ecstatic grandmother: On July 3, 1941, as Hitler threatened our world, Rose Marie Giardinelli gave birth to a son, weighing 5 pounds, 6 and ¾ ounces. Baby boy was 20 inches long.

We saw treasured lace and lovely dresses. We saw photo albums, letters, teacups, and quilts made by the artist honoring lives, each item touched with endearing respect.

I am not sure at what point in our journey I realized I was no longer at a recycling facility, one rescuing trash. Instead, I was attending a memorial service at a grave sight.

At the show's conclusion, Martha retreated quietly in reverent song. The audience thanked her with applause and quiet, appreciative mingling.

On our way to the performance, my husband and I had passed Curran's Irish Inn. This is where he suggested we return and where he offered his favorite toast, " "L'Chaim. To life." It was followed immediately with a toast to Martha's truths: "To women, whose treasures, in spirit and substance, make a house a home." I offered one also: "To the men who understand, encourage and support us." There was a live band. We danced.

Please note: A slightly different version of this review appeared on June 21 in the Broad Street Review: