There was a guy dressed up as Doctor Who — the 11th doctor, specifically — at the Charleston stop of the Unchained Tour on Friday night, and all things considered, it was a pretty vague reference to the storytelling event’s main draw, Neil Gaiman. Known for his novels, his comic books, and his movies, Gaiman only wrote one episode of the penultimate British sci-fi series, though it was a pretty good one. In it, the TARDIS, the Doctor’s most beloved and permanent companion, inhabits a human body for a very brief time. And since we’re on the subject, it would only be fair to point out that the Charleston Music Hall’s Doctor Who, crowned with a cowboy hat in addition to Matt Smith’s blazer, bow-tie, and suspenders, was actually the Doctor of a different episode, due to the cowboy hat. But there’s no need to be that nitpicky. Especially since the guy was carrying a sonic screwdriver. Nice touch.
Gaiman was undeniably the major draw for the Unchained Tour. You could tell by all the people carrying his books with them to their seats, squeezed in their arms like stuffed animals. But the tour, founded by Moth founder George Dawes Green, offered up so much more than the British author. The show opened with the Lowcountry’s own Rachel Kate Gillon and Joel Hamilton, who performed a song while host Peter Aguero watched from a chair on the other side of the stage. As the night went on, Gillon played Andy Richter to Guero’s Conan O’Brien, bantering with him as he introduced the night’s raconteurs and told his own little stories.
First up was Dawn J. Fraser, a Brooklyn-based storyteller who talked about growing up a “Trini-Yankee” in California, her quest for self-discovery, and her altercations with her mother’s dog Kingston. She was followed by Edgar Oliver, no stranger to Charleston since his 2011 one-man Spoleto show. He talked about getting high and paranoid in New York City in his epic Bela Lugosian voice, which Aguero assured us beforehand was the same voice that Oliver uses to order a cup of coffee at a truck stop.
After intermission, Green took the stage for a brief word, preaching about the importance of real, live, physical books while joined in by a chorus of Gillon, Cary Ann Hearst (an Unchained vet), and Sarah Bandy. Afterward, Aguero took some time to tell his own story, a beautiful one about how he convinced a girl to go out with him. She eventually became his wife, and she flew in from New York just to join him that night. It was pretty gooey and romantic. Then he gave three audience members the chance to tell one-minute stories, two of whom gave it their all and one who pretty much wasted his (and everyone else’s) time and made a mortal enemy out of Aguero.
And then it was time for Neil Gaiman. Aguero had to explain to the audience that he’s just a dude who’s done stuff, despite his famous resume, and fortunately we complied to his pleas to chill out, relax, and let the experience wash over us. When Gaiman, dressed in black much like a middle-aged version of his Sandman, took the stage, there was silence.
There is no denying what we witnessed was special. I found myself leaning into Gaiman’s “origin story,” a tale of his childhood and when he first realized that words had power. It had comedy, suspense, and, most importantly, a payoff, and when Gaiman was done in seven minutes or so, it wasn’t enough. He could have weaved tales all night, fiction or non, and it wouldn’t have been enough. This guy is a professional, and as verbally elegant as he is on the page. The music hall was packed with all sorts of people spanning all sorts of demographics, but I feel sorry for anyone and everyone who wasn’t there. If Charleston wasn’t one of the last stop’s on the tour, I would have snuck onto the Unchained bus and followed him in their heart-shaped jaunt across the South.