An audible gasp arose in the Shubert Theater when Barry Humphries satirized deaf culture in Dame Edna: The Royal Tour. Although ASL interpreters are becoming more common on L.A. stages — larger venues such as the Shubert schedule at least one signed performance per run — reminders or outright depictions of other disabilities are much rarer. And even when the physically challenged are portrayed, it‘s more often than not by able-bodied actors.
The visibility of disability, however, has risen with the Mark Taper Forum’s recent accommodations for the physically challenged cast of John Belluso‘s The Body of Bourne, a drama about essayist and orator Randolph Bourne, an early-20th-century intellectual and political activist crippled at birth by forceps delivery and, in childhood, by tuberculosis.
While theater patrons may view themselves as more enlightened and discerning than their screen-struck counterparts, the 31-year-old playwright disagrees. ”Compared to film buffs or TV viewers, theater audiences are much more squeamish when it comes to disability,“ says Belluso, sitting for an interview in the now wheelchair-accessible Taper Annex. ”It’s more of a shock to see disabled performers live, and with that comes an irrational fear of ‘catching’ the disability.“
But ”One can‘t participate in public life if one can’t physically access public areas,“ continues the playwright, who was born with Engleman-Camurdi syndrome, a rare bone disorder that severely weakens the muscles. ”Which is why the Taper architecture needed to change.“
Directed by Lisa Peterson, The Body of Bourne comes with a not-so-hidden political agenda: increased acceptance of the disabled within the theater community, to say nothing of the larger culture. The play is all about access: about Randolph Bourne‘s hard-fought battles to enter public life, about theater audiences’ access to realistic depictions of disability, about artists‘ and patrons’ access to performance venues and other cultural-intellectual spaces.
Most of the dramatic arts are oblivious of disability, and even when physically challenged people are depicted, ”The sentimental model predominates. Disabled people are often shown as tragic, isolated figures,“ says Belluso, whose play includes moments of whimsy and joy. ”False myths are paraded as truth — which is why we need to tell our stories.“
Some of the mythology Belluso seeks to debunk is a holdover from classical notions that viewed physical imperfection as a sign of moral turpitude or spiritual deficiency. It wasn‘t so long ago, after all, that the disabled were threatened with imprisonment merely for participating in public life.
”Until the late 1970s, we didn’t have the right to be seen in public,“ says Belluso, referring to various ”unsightly beggar“ statutes that prohibited people who were ”diseased, maimed or in any way deformed“ (as stated in a Chicago ordinance) from being in public view. Although such ordinances were rarely enforced — and were even ignored, in the case of traveling circuses and ”freak shows“ — law enforcement would occasionally use them to threaten or harass leftist orators like Bourne.
The less we see of disability, the more we fear it, says Belluso, who, with founder and co-director Victoria Ann Lewis, helms the Taper Forum‘s Other Voices Project, one of the very few play-writing programs for the disabled. ”Disabled people can and should document their own history.“ Like the protagonist of The Body of Bourne, Belluso believes that disability can enhance one’s understanding of disenfranchisement. In a 1911 essay, Bourne labels his disability a ”blessing“ that gives him insight into oppression. Similarly, Belluso argues that his own disability provides him with a unique point of view on cultural hegemony. ”Having a disability gives me a perspective on ‘otherness,’“ he says. ”It‘s easier to imagine others’ oppression when you‘re coming from a similar background.“