A ground-breaking collection of contemporary plays by disabled playwrights is reviewed by Kaite O'Reilly
Without a doubt, this is an important book - not just for the seven seminal plays charting three decades of American disability theatre, or for its excellent introduction by editor Victoria Ann Lewis, but also for the revelations in the playwrights' commentaries: the making of Disability Artists, the forming of a disability consciousness and the creation of a "crip" aesthetic.
Rarely have I encountered such a ground-breaking, provocative and satisfying collection of plays, described in the foreword as "precious heirlooms of an emerging culture, the defining manuscripts in the library of some 21st-century Alexandria". After greedily consuming the humour and innovation of these award-winning playwrights, I feel this weighty claim may well be justified - especially as the collection carries its political and cultural significance with insouciance, defiance and a dry, punching wit.
This anthology entertains as it educates, beginning with an excellent historical overview of the religious, medieval or moral models when human physical variation was explained by an act of divine or demonic intervention, through to the medical model and concluding with contemporary issues of independent living and civil rights. It argues eloquently the necessity for disabled playwrights to write their own narratives and challenge what Irene Oppenheim calls "these movie-of-the-week plots" where the bitter, incapable disabled characters always need non-disabled people to convince them that life is worth living.
"I seek to dramatise disability in a way which reveals something deeper than a simplistic illness narrative" the late great John Belluso comments in his author's statement "...to create new stories, new myths, new ways of revealing the disabled body on-stage."
This effort is needed, as, despite three decades of collective struggle, campaigning, direct action and the passing of various disability discrimination acts, the predominant culture's negative representation of disabled people - the victim or villain of the title - can still creep into even politically aware and active disabled writers' work. Lynn Manning describes with horror his first attempt at writing a script and the depressed, self-pitying blind character who "slithered into my play from a dank dungeon, crammed with cliché cripples and inspirational invalids... I'd been bombarded with such disabled stereotypes, and that had left me brainwashed - so much so that I'd unwittingly poised to perpetuate the fraud".
The plays expose the "fraud", revelling in engaging, complex characters intimately involved in all the diversity of American life and human experience. They explode preconceptions and smash open taboos with stories of blind perpetrators of gun violence, rebellion in sheltered workshops, alternative lineages and histories, sexual fantasies and erotic liaisons. Collectively, the plays present disability not as an individual condition, but as part of a social and historical process that takes shape between people and across divisions of races, class and gender.
It is an exhilarating and inspiring ride, especially owing to the medium's potential to influence and bring about change. As Charles Mee puts it: "If Aristotle was right and that human beings are social animals that create themselves in relationships to others, then theatre is the most perfect of art forms to rehearse and discover what is possible for humans to be".
Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights is edited by Victoria Ann Lewis and published by Theatre Communications Group.
ISBN: 1-55936-250-2 51995
The anthology contains the following pieces:
Creeps by David Freeman
Shoot! by Lynn Manning
P.H.*reaks: The Hidden History of People with Disabilities - a collaborative project developed and adapted by Doris Baizley and Victoria Ann Lewis
The History of Bowling by Mike Ervin
Gretty Good Time by John Belluso
A Summer Evening in Des Moines by Charles L Mee Jr
No One as Nasty by Susan Nussbaum