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Music, memory meld magically in ‘Mother’s Milk’

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Wayne Harris’ soulful poignant show “Mother’s Milk” is onstage at the Marsh in Berkeley. (Courtesy Doug McKechnie)

In “Mother’s Milk,” a tender tribute to his late mother, performer Wayne Harris so beautifully embodies her as a character that you may find yourself loving her just as he does. “She was like a warm blanket,” he says.

Harris is just as skilled at conveying the other characters in his 75-minute solo show. They include his stepfather, Uncle Bill, an elderly member of the Baptist church in which Harris was raised, and even his crazy sister “lost in a religious psychosis.” He depicts each of them in carefully observed, empathetic detail, even Uncle Bill, whom, as a kid, he hated.

Billed as “a gospel blues riff in three acts,” “Mother’s Milk” is in an extended run in The Marsh Berkeley’s intimate cabaret space, with Randy Craig at the piano and John McArdle on bass.

As Harris relates through song and non-linear narrative text, he was raised in St. Louis, one of five siblings, and couldn’t wait to leave the oppressive home life controlled by Uncle Bill. Harris escaped by joining a drum and bugle corps, eventually winding up here in the Bay Area.

The songs—largely composed and arranged by the talented Craig, some sung in fragments and later reprised — provide wistful, joyful and affecting counterpoints to Harris’ story, the music enriched at times by Harris on a baritone bugle and sometimes with a tambourine. The accompanists add dramatic and often humorous sound effects.

Harris skims lightly over his life as a kid on the streets in the 1960s idolizing the Black Panthers (especially their cool black jackets). We’re told of his mother’s mastectomy (as a kid embraced in her arms, he’d thought her warmth emanated from her breasts), and of her funeral, where a nervous Harris was a pallbearer.

He also shares his down-to-earth view of religion, an ever-present motif in his story.

Directed by David Ford, the Bay Area’s pre-eminent guru of solo shows, “Mother’s Milk” is a simple and, thankfully, unsentimental story that slows down at times but is wonderfully uplifted by Harris’ charm, easygoing stage presence and deep, resonant singing voice. In fact, best of all are the vocals; whether he’s channeling various characters or just singing as himself, he mesmerizes.

You may not necessarily wish that Harris’ mother were your own (disturbingly, she beat him with the branch of a tree), but you will certainly wish you had a child who could immortalize you so passionately.

Mother’s Milk

Where: Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
When: 5 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays, closes Jan. 31
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org

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