Stories are medicine: They can heal or they can harm. Sometimes, an angel comes to wrestle.
When I first joined Interact Theater Company, I had recently been in a motorcycle accident and lost the use of my right arm. Interact is a group of performers with disabilities. As soon as I joined, it felt like home. On the first day we were in a large circle of a dozen performers with disabilities of all kinds.
The question was posed, “If there was a pill to take away your disability, would you take it?” I was surprised to find that I was the only one in the circle who said yes. I looked at my fellow performers and wondered if I would ever be able to accept my new self. I realized that the person I would become would be more familiar than the person I used to be.
Over the years I’ve learned so much from this company. The shows are often personal stories of triumph or heartbreak, and every day I laugh to tears. There are posters that say, “Work your quirk!” or “Dancing with the scars” or “Hurt ‘til it laughs.”
There is a group of four singers with Down Syndrome who call themselves “The Downbeats.” They are amazing and hilarious. Each performer in the company brings to the stage a possibility for catharsis that cannot be trained—the type of honest authenticity that many professional actors seek.
One company member named Ingrid has aphasia, a condition that makes it difficult for thoughts to become words. Ingrid told me that, before the onset of her aphasia, she believed, “I think, therefore I am.” But now she knows we come from a deeper place: “I am, therefore I think.”
When Ingrid said this, I was instantly transported to a love poem written by the Sufi poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I thought about how Shakespeare combined the lunatic, the lover, and the poet. Seekers such as these reach beyond their grasp, beyond what they see in the mirror, to a point beyond wrong and right. A lover is taken there through another. A lunatic, driven by the moon, has a foot in two worlds—he can’t help it. And a poet—like Dante boldly stepping into the underworld—seeks the unknowable. Sometimes when a poet gets it right, we all travel along to that place.
Interact invited an Australian company of performers with disabilities to Minnesota. Their company, the Tutti Ensemble, is from Adelaide, the driest, hottest part of the driest, hottest continent, and we brought them over in January. None of them had ever seen snow. We took them to northern Minnesota for dog sledding and ice fishing. They really amazed me. On the last day we fired up a sauna. Everyone got really hot, then a guy that worked at the lodge went on to the frozen lake and sawed a hole in the ice with a chainsaw. Out of the eleven performers, ten jumped into the freezing water.
The next year the Tutti Ensemble invited us to Australia and took members from our company into the outback in 115-degree heat. They led us through adventures in the desert heat that rivaled anything we’d put them through. From those experiences we created a play called Northern Lights/Southern Cross.
Our combined companies premiered our new play at a festival in southern Australia called Bundaleer. We were the opening act, with 5,000 people on a hillside listening in the shade of the gum trees and parrots squawking overhead. Our choir sounded so beautiful, like angels. I got goose bumps every time the group sang.
We were followed by the Sydney Symphony and two opera singers, Teddy Rhodes and Simon O’Neal. The crowd went crazy. The finale was to be a song featuring Teddy Rhodes, joined by our choir. As the audience was settling in for the grand finale, the symphony told us backstage that they hadn’t practiced the music enough to do the piece justice. The finale would instead close with a duet sung by the two opera stars. Everyone understood, but I could tell that our choir was crushed. When a choir of performers with disabilities takes on a song, we don’t just pull out the music and go for it. We had been rehearsing this number for over a year.
After the final duet, and a thunderous standing ovation, Teddy Rhodes, by now a hero to this crowd, quieted the audience and explained why the original finale with the Tutti Ensemble and the Symphony was not possible. However, he said he had seen a smaller stage on the way in and on that stage was an old, upright piano that he could play. He said the piano might not be in tune, and the audience would have to relocate, but if everyone agreed, we could finish the concert over there. Five thousand people instantly sprang to their feet, grabbed blankets and picnic baskets, and gathered around the tiny stage. Teddy Rhodes stood at the piano, played the music and sang the finale with the Tutti Ensemble, and that choir of angels again filled the air. It was beautiful, it was subversive, and we were all transported to before wrongdoing, before rightdoing—from “I think” to “I am.”
And in that moment, I realized that I would never take that pill.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Fall 2014 print issue: Disability Justice and Politics. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit http://www.tikkun.org/disability to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)