Humboldt’s own Mary Jane: The Musical

By: Sharon Letts
Photo (Right): T.McNally

The world’s iconic regions have been covered in verse. New York screams of city lights in the town that doesn’t sleep; Chicago sizzles; ex’s live in Texas; and California is always dreaming – but when it comes to cannabis, Humboldt County rocks it like no other.

Mary Jane: The Musical opened in the tiny town of Blue Lake at the larger than life Dell’Arte International, one of two physical schools of comedy in the world. Founded in 1971 on Berkeley soil, the founders followed back-to-the-landers to Humboldt and made themselves at home in a historic depot in 1974.

Photo By. Sharon Letts

The Diva of Sativa and Queen of the Emerald Ball hit the stage in June of this year to sold-out audiences with the world’s largest bud in hand and a bevy of original musical numbers written by some of Humboldt’s finest singer/songwriters.

Dell’Arte’s Producing Artistic Director and Director of Mary Jane: The Musical, Michael Fields, waxed poetic of the controversial play, launching the school’s 40th anniversary and 21st year of its Mad River Festival, kicking off its summer season.

“This play is really the community speaking to itself. Dell’Arte has always been about ‘theatre of place,” Fields explained. “That is, theatre by, for, about, and with the community in which we live.”

Quoting Hamlet, Fields said, “Dell’Arte holds the mirror up, laughing and crying at itself. For the play is a satirical and sometimes biting descriptor of Humbyland in all its green glory.”

Mary Jane: The Musical sprang from Cali’s failed Prop. 19, which would have forced Humboldt to deal with its main economic squeeze, if passed. Instead, the failed proposition began a conversation that continues with humor, sadness, and a respect for the bud.

Dell’Arte students hail from all over the world, bringing a magical amount of diversity to an already rich with culture environment that makes Humboldt…well, Humboldt. The ensemble cast is comprised of students and teachers alike, with everyone participating in each number, sans special guests.

The lead role played with perfection by Dell’Arte co-founder Joan Schirle, tells the story of Humboldt’s greatest and illusive commodity. She is the “Diva of Sativa,” a Southern Humboldt back-to-the-lander and free-spirit, wise beyond her years, sharing her knowledge from the Summer of Love and heartache in the covert world of canna, singing, “It’s Kush to be Mary Jane.”

From seedling to maturity
I’ve had the best of care—
No artificial light, no fans,
Just sunlight and fresh air.

They’ll be toasting me with pure delight,
No roaster bag for me tonight,
I’m out! I’m proud! I stink out loud!
Anybody got a light?

Through Mary Jane we meet her niece, Chantrelle, the quintessential Humboldt Honey still very much alive in Humboldt today, played by student Janessa Johnsrude, and accompanied by fellow thespians Zuzka Sabata and Meridith Anne Baldwin.

Dawning classic, blonde dreadlocks, singing of Vegan delights, singer/songwriter Eldin Green crafted her with love and admiration.

It’s a whole-wheat, eighteen grain bagel
And it actually has some acorn in it
I actually made the cream cheese myself
But it’s not really cream cheese you see
It’s tofu and mayonnaise, because I’m a vegan
And I don’t believe in cream cheese…because dairy is pain!

“She’s one of the things that attracted me to the area – and the fact that she never went away,” Green shared. “The actual Vegan folk are usually sweet, determined individuals,” Green said of his tribute.

Zuzka Sabata hails from the Czech Republic, but said she grew up in California. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Ensemble Based Physical Theater at the school. Aside from achieving goals as a performer, she said surviving in an economy where community art isn’t given a monetary value is a challenge. “Green Like Money” is her nod to the profitable side of growing.

Let me buy you a house, let me buy you a car,
buy you some friends wherever you are
The present moment fools you
My hot breath cools you

I’m green like money
I’ll make you feel like honey
Slow and wise
A head filled with helium will rise

Characters throughout include Gemini Giovani, a world traveler who comes back to Humboldt to grow and reap the benefits of an abundance of cash. Local storyteller Jeff DeMark sings of “Christmas Eve in Hilo,” ordering a “Double Gin and Chronic” in the process, as the ensemble hulas to the beat.

A double gin and chronic
Makes me feel supersonic
When I’m feelin’ down
It lifts me off the ground
It was Christmas Eve in Hilo
(Saw) a street singer in dreadlocks
Singing the world’s angriest version
Of Puff the Magic Dragon

An endearing number called “Grow Inside” is a tragic tale of indoor and outdoor grows in love. Moving, yet, hilarious as indoor grower Kev sings with Mary Jane, “I don’t want to go outside and you don’t want to come inside.”

It’s a lighthearted number that breezes the issue of indoor grows, with Mary Jane lamenting, “I’ve always been an outdoor plant.  You know they say indoor pot production uses 1% of the country’s electricity.  A little ironic don’t ya think?”

The lighthearted feel of the play turns dark during Act II with “The Industry”, written and performed by guitarist and songwriter Scott Menzies. It’s a Metal number and hits hard, both visually and lyrically, against the dark side of this covert industry that wants to stay that way.

“I just feel that the symptoms (of growing) have become worse and worse and worse. It used to just be ‘Be careful about walking in the woods, and now it’s burning indoor grows, guns, all the stuff mentioned in the song.”

The catalyst for the number was political and centered on Prop. 19 and the equally ironic movement of growers wanting to keep cannabis a crime.

“If people are benefiting economically from the incarceration of others, it’s wrong,” Menzies explained. “Hearing the stories about groups in So. Hum. (Southern Humboldt) who were supporting McCain for president because they figured his election would ensure continued prohibition, seriously pissed me off. Then, hearing that a group of outdoor growers, who were advocating against ‘diesel dope’ and for organic growing in the sun, were receiving death threats, added to that fire.”

I hide in the forests, hide amongst the trees.
The purr of machinery, keeps my profits humming.
The stench of diesel as it soaks into the earth
I am The Industry, and profits come first!

I hide in your neighborhood, hide behind closed doors
Hear the lamps buzz as mold spreads on the floors
Jacked up housing prices skewed economy
I am The Industry, it’s all about me!

The conversation further deepens with “My Son” and Mary Jane regretful for raising a child in the shade of the plant.

He was by my side, the very first time I put a seed in the ground.
He watched me hope, he watched me pray, he watched as I sold my first pound.
And then he watched me grow easy as my life turned around.
Food stamps and poverty were nowhere to be found.
I built a homestead and it wasn’t only me,
It was a whole community, a whole community.

I’ve given him a lifestyle full of danger.
I’ve given him a life full of fear.
I have given him a job that holds no future.

Nuggy, Nuggy lightens the load with a Bollywood tribute, sans Pratik Motwani, an MFA student who studied the dance technique as a child, but said he really learned from watching films.

Photo By. Sharon Letts

Originally from Bombay, the home of Bollywood – India’s entertainment industry capitol, Motwani doubled for lead Dev Patel in the Indian version of Slumdog Millionaire, as the film’s British star had no Hindi.

Humboldt State University is located in neighboring Arcata, otherwise known as “60s by the sea.” Like many who come to the county to study, Motwani said he was unaware of the county’s pot past.

“My views have definitely changed about it from the time I came here, and my perspective has been broadened,” he said. “I have learned about its medicinal use and its spiritual significance.”

Music Director Randles said he created the number just for Motwani, as is common practice to pick from the school’s rich, cultural pool, undaunted at the subject matter.

“What also made the story so powerful was that it was cathartic for a lot of people,” Randles continued. “It took this kind of hidden thing, pot, which is all around us, and brought it out into the open and let everyone laugh at it and take it serious. The show made it okay to be associated with this cultural taboo.”

Randles said the musical works because the show is set in a context where you expect singing and dancing, and they don’t seem out of place.

“A lot of the evolution of the musical has tried to blend realistic drama with song and dance,” Randles said. “Sometimes it works, but a lot of the time it seems a bit contrived. Most of the early musicals were based on showbiz stories where song and dance was all a normal part of what’s going on.”

Director Fields said he had wanted to do a piece on marijuana for years, but it took the failed initiative to bring the subject into the mainstream. Future plans include grants and sponsors to take the show on the road.

“All of the reviews have been raves,” he added. “My fear and secret hope was that it would cause more controversy than it did. I expected we might get a push back from growers and folks against, but that hasn’t happened. Sometimes it takes a while in a rural community before you hear the whole story, which is why I think it begs a second round.”

Dell’Arte and Humboldt fans may have another reason to visit Humbyland next year as they wait for Mary Jane: The Musical – Part 2. If Fields has his way, the play will be traveling south to So. Cal.

For more information on Dell’Arte and its programs, visit

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