‘I Was Right Here’ is rich storytelling of life, love and loss

Photo of I Was Right Here
Donny Gilliland/Courtesy

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Written and performed by Julia Brothers on commission for the San Francisco Playhouse, “I Was Right Here” showcases Brothers’ life, memories and fears compressed into an endearing 70 minutes. Using a free-flowing storyline, the play is both individual to Brothers and universally relatable, never feeling too much like an autobiography, but rather, an exploration of some of life’s biggest questions. 

The stage is simply set with two conjoined train seats in stark contrast to a black background. Upon one seat sits Brothers, accompanied by a large purse. The minimal setting is the perfect blank slate for Brothers’ stories, which will come to life with her lavish use of language. 

The play begins with a meditation on identity, as Brothers contemplates the reflection of her aislemate in her (imagined) window. Like the many other philosophical musings in the play, this first one is both brief and deeply impactful. Turning to the audience, Brothers then explains that she is on her way to visit her 97-year-old mother, whom she has been unable to visit due to the pandemic. Brothers paints a touching picture of her relationship with her mother, whom she calls madre, and who calls her “Julia darling.” She relates that her mother has been losing her memory much more frequently, and her lighthearted approach to death has at times soured with this worsening dementia. 

“I Was Right Here” follows winding streams of thought, alighting upon various memories of life, love and loss. Themes of memory and death hold consistent significance, with Brothers recollecting her love for Robert F. Kennedy, time spent with an exuberant friend from Los Angeles, being forgotten during carpool, meeting her partner and so many other moments. However, there is a sadness woven throughout these stories, as many of her loved ones have tragically died. Brothers ponders upon how such lively spirits can suddenly evaporate, asking the audience, “What happens when people die and they disappear?”

Although Brothers settles upon loss as a subject of contemplation, there are enough jovial, light hearted moments that the play never sinks into a depressive stupor. The inclusion of these moments sets “I Was Right Here” apart as a play that tackles the boundless experiences of life without restricting itself to its more serious moments. Because of this broad appreciation, Brothers’ storytelling tends to twist and meander, retelling small and large moments alike, while the play’s beautiful language and saturated descriptions make every moment impactful. 

Toward the end of the play, Brothers recalls her longtime fixation upon a series of photographs taken by Paul Fusco of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train, and the people who came out to watch it. At first, she is shocked to realize she misremembered the event, and that the train did not pass by her house, but that she and her father drove out to watch it. Then, she is frustrated by her inability to find herself and her father in the pictures. This leads her down a rabbit hole of ruminations which center around being seen and remembered, or being overlooked and forgotten. As always, Brothers includes the audience in these thoughts, asking “I wonder who you’ve forgotten, or who’s forgotten you.”

Brothers’ performance is a gift to experience, as her face fills with joy, serenity, confusion, anxiety and sadness with absolute effortlessness. At some moments, she dances around the stage, embodied by young love and youthful adventure. At other times, she relives moments of loss and death. With such limited props and visuals, Brothers’ storytelling and acting creates a truly beautiful, relatable and humorous viewing experience.

Directed by Padraic Lillis, the play highlights Brothers’ storytelling with occasional music, voice-overs, screen projections and limited prop use. Brothers moves about the stage as she reminisces, only returning to her seat when the play is in the present moment. These clever decisions add a subtle, thematic undertone to Brothers’ stories, but are careful to never overshadow them. 

“I Was Right Here” is a spellbinding look into Brothers’ life, expertly written and performed, with something for everyone. It is a reminder that through loss, love and life we are not alone, and that these universal moments need only be recognized by ourselves to be meaningful. 

Nathalie Grogan covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].