The Narrative of Disabled Performers Needs to Change by Noah Golden

On June 9th, Ali Stroker won a Tony Award, making her the first wheelchair-user to win a prize at the top event for honoring Broadway talent. She is only one of a handful of disabled actors to win a major acting award in the US across any media (following Phyllis Frelich, Marlee Matlin, Harold Russell, and Christopher Reeve). She was also the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway, making her debut in the 2015 “Spring Awakening” revival. Her Tony win is, of course, not just a huge personal achievement for the 32-year-old performer but a win for a more diverse theater and media landscape.

“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” she said in her acceptance speech and almost immediately Twitter was flooded with messages from fellow wheelchair-users and differently-abled folks who finally saw themselves represented. Clearly, much more work has to be done to make Broadway – and theater in general – a whole lot more accessible and inclusive, but I’m hopeful that Ms. Stroker’s win will act as a key to the many, many doors disabled performers have been locked out of.

But her win is even a bigger victory when it comes to representation. Ms. Stroker won for playing Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s revival of “Oklahoma,” a role that wasn’t written or initially imagined as a disabled woman. Annie is vivacious, sexually-liberated and playful, and continues to be in Ms. Stroker’s hands. She is not struggling with her wheelchair; she is not bullied by her friends or rejected by suitors. I have yet to see “Oklahoma” but have been told by two friends, both attentive theater-goers, that no mention is given whatsoever to Annie’s chair in the production. The role is not defined by the actor’s disability. That is where true change begins.

And this goes far beyond Ms. Stroker. When a disabled character is featured in a film or play, the role almost always revolves around that disability. From “I Am Sam” and “The Sessions” to “My Left Foot” and “Babel,” the lead characters’ main arc is overcoming the hardships and isolation their disability brings. I’m not dismissing such plotlines – medical issues can be immensely difficult and depicting that on screen or stage is valid – but reducing an entire person’s life to a single struggle in the depiction of almost every disabled person’s life is a disservice to the disabled and non-disabled community.

This, of course, is even more important when the role of a disabled character is played by an actor with the same condition. Things are (slowly) starting to change for the better, but I bet you didn’t even realize that the four movies I listed in the last paragraph features non-disabled or hearing actors playing the role of a disabled or deaf person. It’s an issue that is far too complicated for this short essay and that is well summed up in the article deaf actress Amelia Hensley wrote for OnStage, but one that intertwines with the issue at hand. Because even the few times disabled actors represent themselves on screen or stage, we often get Sarah Norman unable to be heard in a hearing world in “Children of A Lesser God” or Ani struggling to cope with her newfound paraplegia in Martyna Majok’s “Cost Of Living.”

That’s why it’s so powerful to see Ali Stroker perform “Cain’t Say No.” In that song, she’s strong, confident and sexy. After the first few bars, her wheelchair fades to the background, an object with the same importance as her hoop earrings or golden curls. Part of her, for sure, but not the whole picture. Far from it. Which is exactly the point.

Why can’t we see a romantic comedy where the busy businessman with no time for love just happens to be blind? Or a coming of age high school narrative set in a deaf school? Or a family drama where the husband fighting for his daughter’s custody is paraplegic? If we’re talking revivals like “Oklahoma,” why can’t pie-baker Jenna from “Waitress” use a wheelchair to get around? Why can’t Jamie, the wunderkind, philandering novelist from “The Last Five Years” communicate in ASL? Why can’t Eponine have dwarfism?

I’m not saying actors shouldn’t celebrate the things that make them unique; quite the opposite. Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” didn’t alter a single word to comment on the fact that Wendla and many of her friends were deaf, but it added a new layer of subtext to a play “about people who cannot or will not communicate with each other,” as I put it in my OnStage review. That combination made the production magical and even more emotionally resonant than the original. Having Ms. Stroker play Olive Ostrovsky in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a role she’s done twice, probably gives new insight as to why Olive feels like an outsider. But like real life, those characters weren’t defined by their diagnoses.

It’s slow but starting to happen. “Breaking Bad” very rarely commented on Walt Jr’s CP and Gaten Matarazzo’s cleidocranial dysplasia is only a small character detail in “Stranger Things.” Glinda Jackson’s “King Lear” revival cast two deaf actors while Peter Dinklage, the “Game of Thrones” star with Achondroplasia, has starred as “Richard III” and in Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” Off-Broadway. “Spring Awakening” alum Sandra Mae Frank was recently featured in the horror film “Soul To Keep,” playing a role that could have gone to hearing actress without almost any alteration to the script.

It’s fitting that the best example I can think of is the recent Netflix comedy “Special.” It stars Ryan O’Connell as a fictionalized version of himself; a gay, recent grad navigating many of life’s firsts – first job, first time leaving home, first sexual experience. Ryan also has a mild form of Cerebral Palsy. “Special” doesn’t ignore the character’s CP and an entire storyline revolves around his refusal to be open about his diagnosis. But O’Connell – speaking, I’m sure, both in character and as the show’s writer/creator – says in an early episode that “[His] whole life CP has been like the main course when really it just needs to be an appetizer.” “Special” is a special show because Ryan is a complex, fun character who is sometimes needy and selfish (“people with CP can be assholes too,” another character says) and sometimes witty and relatable, not because of his disability. He is not there to inspire anyone; he is merely living his life.

I have to believe that’s true because “Special” didn’t just star a performer with CP but was written by someone with it too. If there’s a reason disabled characters often come across one-dimensionally, it’s largely because there’s a dramatic dearth in disabled writers/directors/producers who can accurately tell their own stories.

We, as a community of theater-makers and theater-goers, are always looking for work that gives us something new. I’ve written before about my experiences working behind-the-scenes with disabled actors in the community theater space and how utilizing such performers can make familiar shows feel unique and fresh. People like Daniel Fish and Michael Arden agree on an even bigger scale. Only representing differently-abled people on screen or stage as underdogs or as fodder for inspiration porn robs us of far more interesting stories and creates an atmosphere where disabled actors are stuck depicting nothing more than their chair or hearing aid. In the end, it comes down to sometimes Rachel Chavkin said in her Tony speech, referencing the fact that she was the only female nominee for Best Director: “It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the way the world could be.”

Special thanks to Amelia Hensley for her help during the writing process and to Nati Avni-Singer & Sara Detrik, my eyes and ears at “Oklahoma.”

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