Echoing the screams: Tribute to late comic uses his own words
By KAREN SHADE, 8/13/2007
What is it about dead heroes that keeps people fascinated and curious?
If you're a talented Tulsa actor with a knack for tapping into the darker side of life, you hold up your idol in a one-man show.
If that idol is Bill Hicks, the late Texas comic who loved his country yet saw it with all of its hypocritical warts, you know you have the components for a potentially explosive show.
Brian Rattlingourd's "Born Screaming in America: A One-man Tribute to Bill Hicks" didn't quite combust at its Friday night opening at the Nightingale Theater -- the first of four showings, every Friday on a double billing through Aug. 31.
His portrayal during the show's one-night run in June at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center more closely matched Hicks' profane and brazen virtuosity.
But on Friday, Rattlingourd gradually composed himself and fitfully settled into the dissonance that is the comic's right to examine everything that is taken for granted, assumed and unchecked. And, it's all for your consideration.
Hicks, after all, is the guy who often said, "Drugs have done good things for us," that childbirth is no more a miracle than the digestive process and that celebrity peddlers can forever mark themselves off "the artistic roll call."
"I'm Bill Hicks, and I am dead now because I smoked cigarettes," he says in the show, commenting on anti-smoking commercials. "Cigarettes didn't kill me. A bunch of nonsmokers kicked the s out of me."
He never claimed to share the popular opinion, but Hicks' plain-spoken, sharp criticism, delivered through the occasionally askewed expression, drew many comparisons to Lenny Bruce. Hicks didn't see it, according to Rattlingourd's show.
Much of "Born Screaming in America" is Hicks' material, taken verbatim from recordings of his standup routines at venues all across the country in the 1980s and early '90s. Rattlingourd, however, includes scenes he wrote based on accounts of Hicks' life. In the first of the three scenes, Hicks learns that he will die in eight months from pancreatic cancer. The second scene shows a bewildered Hicks, just told that his final appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" was completely censored from broadcast. In the last, Hicks is on his death bed persuading his dad to trip on 'shrooms with him as his final wish. It's too sincere to be absurd.
It's important to remember that "Born Screaming in America" is not one guy's attempt to win success for himself by way of a silenced outlaw comic's ever-startling material. Rattlingourd is more interested in the portrayal, revealing Hicks as a soul fearless of rebuttal and attack who could also be tender in private.
We are shown both the squint-eyed, stage-ready satirist ripping through American complacency, implicating all, and the weakened young man dying of cancer, who would not live to see age 33. Hicks died in 1994.
Whether he reacted to his diagnosis or lived out his last days as Rattlingourd has written them is known only to those who were with Hicks at the end. But they are solid reminders that "Born Screaming in America" is a theatrical effort and not a knock-off impression.
Rattlingourd works in Hicks' humorous, biting takes on fundamentalist Christianity, alcohol abuse, evolution, anti-intellectualism, religious practices and fallen comics.
In Hicks' view, making a naturally occurring product such as marijuana illegal is paranoid and goes against God.
"It's pretty simple when it's spelled out in black and white for you," he says.
Is it any wonder that Hicks would have to travel across international borders to find his audience?
Hicks' work is surprisingly relevant today after more than a decade. Some of his targets refuse to go away: Billy Ray Cyrus, minus the mullet, is still around on the Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana;" "Cops" on Fox is about to have its golden anniversary any second now; and Joey Lawrence, then of "Blossom," recently fox-trotted his overly tanned and shorn pate back to TV in ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."
Missing, however, is the more controversial material that earned Hicks more notice in Canada and Great Britain, namely his comments on another President Bush's war in the Middle East, circa 1991, and the Clinton administration's handling of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Also missing is Hicks' exploration of sexual taboos.
Rattlingourd does a great job of emulating Hicks' gestures, postures and caricatures, but he's even better when he bears those mannerisms in mind and feeds off his own malcontent, whatever its source, to deliver the lines. At times, Rattlingourd is downright fierce, which is how a fan of Hicks' or Sam Kinison's likes his young curmudgeon served.
For anyone still curious, ready to duck out of their polite society and P.C. perceptions, "Born Screaming in America" is a good primer on Hicks, but only if you're ready for it.
And if you didn't get it before, this show is for a mature audience, as it is filled with mature language, themes, shocking admissions and uncharacteristically human observations.
"Born Screaming in America: A One-man Tribute to Bill Hicks" continues at 8 p.m. Aug. 24 and Aug. 31 at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.
Tickets are $8 and available by calling 633-8666.