Lindsay Carter caught Deborah A Williams' one-woman show oUo maan at Caedmon Hall, Gateshead.
It was fitting that this coming of age drama was performed on the writer/producer/performer's birthday at Caedmon Hall in Gateshead. No, that's not three spookily coincidental birthdays; 'oUo maan' is a one-woman show.
The set was simple, and as keenly observed as the journey we, the audience, were taken on. Purple backdrops seemed to morph Aretha Franklin and Jackie/Williams in a montage of faces. A table, a chair, a stool and a wig, was all it took to furnish the story. The rest was all Williams. The musical punctuation from Franklin, Gladys Knight et al was witty, soulful, and picked just ripe. 'Don't make me over' and 'Accept me for what I am' set the scene. We watched as Jackie, a black disabled girl, grew up, grew art, grew apart, grew heart, and grew wise.
Williams became Jackie's calm, sonorous father as he primed her for the challenges ahead. He warned her that different wasn't always good. Kids chanted insults. Teachers rejected her. The label was 'special'. Jackie's first encounter with her own 'special people' was hilariously of a wheelchair basket weaving variety. Then singing for deaf kids. No thank you.
Next was an inevitable brush with drama. If you're disabled you've probably been there. A falsely, over-enthusiastic audience simpering praise at you, whatever crap you turn out. Special! Then the great 'special' opportunity occurred and, kaboom, she and her small drama group was transported to a Special Arts Festival in the USA. All expenses paid. But was Boston ready for the young black disabled actors? No! They were the only black kids there.
Add label, speak slowly, apply cotton wool, curfew, and mix with the other special people being wheeled round by suffocating chaperones. The shows were all awful. Specially awful. Jackie was ashamed, and alienated. However, she was in the right place for the wrong reason, because there she found… love. Or identity. Or both. Or neither.
Sightseeing, Jackie strolled into a youthful Disability Rights demo. More importantly, she set eyes on its lanky white leader.
Well, she said
my Jason Orange, but what's in a colour?" He was shouting up about the shows being rubbish and the event being a sham. He talked about the need for disabled people to lead their own events. She was inspired. He built her up to speak out, to reject the sham of the speshfest. He made her feel real. He made her feel horny. She proudly took him to see her friend. He proudly took her friend. Her lighter friend. Was Jackie too black for him? Too disabled?
Williams makes us question the dangerous sliding scales of skin colour, of gender, of disability. Why did their group leader pretend not to be deaf, when he so obviously was? Why was her friend's colour more acceptable than hers was? Some people can pretend they're not disabled, others can't. So, militant Jackie went home, on a lonely plane with a bag full of new labels, to her proud father. Who wasn't so proud at all. He rebuked her for being led by a white person, for thinking that she knows it all. For making a noise, for being broken. Jackie was proud though, proud of her layers and her passage. Proud to be unique. Glad to have gone away from the restraints of her family, and the low expectations of her father.
The vision that Williams left us with was that we have to create our own truth, our own identity. And be proud of it. It was an immensely absorbing journey through the spider's web of identity and labels that society puts onto people, and those that people are proud to take for themselves. Deborah Williams' performance was intense, moving, and honest. Her wit and her fabulous choice of music sweetened the discomfort she threw up at the audience.
I hope she had a wonderful birthday and comes back to celebrate it in the northeast again.