Natchez roots nurture celebrated artist’s gift

Published 2:56 pm Monday, January 29, 2024

“Heather Christian is redefining the musical.”

The headline popped up as I was working through dozens of emails, trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, and gave me pause.

This was an article on playbill.com; surely it couldn’t be the same Heather Christian.

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One click and two minutes later I was spiraling down the rabbit hole, amazed and awed.

The young Natchez girl I remembered standing behind the ambo at St. Mary’s Basilica cantering during Mass has become an acclaimed composer and performer, drawing rave reviews and awards for the music and performances that spring from her imagination and her life experiences.

In fairness, my memories of young Heather Christian were pre-2001, and somehow, she was frozen in my memory as that young girl with an incredible voice, an old soul and a presence that belied her age.

Yet here she is, at the age of 40, debuting her latest show, “Terce: A Practical Breviary,” in New York to rave reviews. Jesse Green, the longtime theater critic for the New York Times, was so moved that he wrote: “When visiting the church of Heather Christian: I’m not sure what faith she’s selling, but I’m a sucker for the way it sounds.” Her previous shows have earned Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards and have been produced Off-Broadway by Ars Nova. And, as if not busy enough, she’s also writing the music for a Broadway-aimed production of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

“Terce” is Heather’s reimagining of one of the periods of prayer included in the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours – the daily prayer of the Church that includes marking the hours of each day with prayer. Her first installment in the series was “Prime: A Practical Breviary” and it followed her 2022 show “Oratorio for Living Things,” a self-described reimagining of a requiem Mass that drew heavily on Heather’s childhood in Natchez and her family for inspiration. The works – at least as much as an afternoon spent searching the Internet will yield – are heady, unconventional, stunning and compelling. And just like I watched that young girl embody the prayers of the Mass in St. Mary, I was spellbound watching her videos, in awe of the artist’s gift.

That creative gift – for music, written word, arts, architecture, painting – seems to spring from the soil here in Mississippi. Maybe it’s part of the DNA in Mississippi – often the “last” state in all the best rankings with an often ugly history that created a divide between people and classes of people simply because of the color of their skin or their lineage. Or maybe it’s the family roots that burrow deep in the soil and keep us tethered across generations and create an outsized pride in our home, our families, and our way of life.

Surely, what other state would yield a group of women brash enough to believe their gardens and homes were so spectacular that tourists would – and should – travel across the country to pay for the honoring of enjoying the hospitality?

For years, when asked about why I so fiercely love Mississippi – and Natchez in particular – I’ve talked about the richness of our history; the culture that finds beauty in the ordinary and joy in the face of struggles; the sense of place and identity that create home. And I’ve talked about how all our history – the good and the ugly – shape who we are today and who we will be in the years ahead. You see that in our artists: William Faulkner, Greg Iles, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Bo Diddly, Elvis Presley, Morgan Freeman, Jimmy Buffett, Walter Anderson, Glen Ballard and scores more. You find it in our architecture, particularly here in Natchez, where buildings tell stories. And, most important, you find it our culture – from river travelers to farmers, shipyard workers on the Gulf Coast to professors at the University of Mississippi, Natchezians to Natchoozians – we are a reflection of all.

Heather Christian’s talent is, no question, a gift. But I have to believe her Natchez, Mississippi, childhood experience helped nurture and develop that gift – giving it space to grow and develop, with roots that grow deep and wide, as she soars.

 

Stacy G. Graning is regional editor at The Democrat. Email her at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com.