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Onstage, Michael Mack is becoming his mother. He hugs his arms around his chest; his fingers gingerly flutter up his arms to his neck and then to his face, which he contorts as he shifts from sadness to anger to frustration to confusion and back to anger. “This is not my body; this is a house of demons,” he whimpers painfully. “This is a palace of demons,” he calls out. Then he freezes. Then he shakes. Then he’s himself again.
Offstage, Mack, 45, is the composed and compassionate son of a schizophrenic parent. He has spent the past four years performing and tweaking his one-man show, Hearing Voices, Speaking in Tongues, which premieres in Washington this week at the District of Columbia Arts Center. “It has been an evolution. I really had to find a way to work through those experiences with my mother, because they were so formative for me,” says Mack, a D.C.-area native who now lives in Boston. “The show is really a series of moments, because I found while writing that there were…particular times in my life that had special meaning and poignancy for me.” Those moments span from childhood to adulthood: from a 7-year-old Mack having to explain his mom’s erratic behavior to his perplexed elementary school peers to an adult Mack receiving a collect call from his mother, who had been missing and living on the streets for months, asking him to pick her up at an intersection somewhere in Washington.
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There is no shortage of stories for the performer, the oldest of four kids, who was 5 years old when his mother began slipping into schizophrenia. She spent subsequent years in and out of state mental institutions, as she vacillated between the stability brought on by her medications and the unpredictability of being off them. Mack didn’t start writing about it all until college.
As a business major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he took a poetry class for fun, plumbed his childhood for writing material, and ended up switching majors. He honed his performance chops in the Boston poetry-slam scene, competed in national slam competitions, and eventually began developing some of his pieces into a complete work that became Hearing Voices.
Though Mack still has a day job—he works as a tech writer for one of MIT’s research centers—lately he’s been spending more time on his show. He’s often the scheduled entertainment at mental-health conferences across the country, where he always gets a warm reception from people who can relate to his tales. “The thing that I’ve been realizing is it’s such a universal story, because mental illness is a lot more common than we let on: One in every four families has somebody who suffers from a psychotic break,” says Mack. “When people tell me their stories, it’s like I’m hearing my story all over again, because there are so many components that repeat themselves.”
These days, Mack’s mother is living in a group home in Baltimore, and the two talk weekly. She hasn’t been to the show, but Mack’s father saw it last year. “He found it interesting that the same experiences that he had as an adult, I could convey as a child. It gave him a perspective that he didn’t have before,” says Mack, who hopes to bring the show back to Washington again later this year. “He was impressed, and he said I handled it well, I’m glad to say, because, as you can imagine, I was really nervous.” —Aimee Agresti
Hearing Voices, Speaking in Tongues runs to Saturday, Feb. 16, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW. For more information, call (202) 462-7833.