John Belluso
1969-2006

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In an interview with the "San Francisco Observer" John Belluso predicted that disability would always be a theme in his work. "It is an experience that shapes my life and view of the world, and a topic that I find endlessly fascinating because there is that universal element… It is the one minority class in which anyone can become a member of at any time."

At the time of his death Belluso was working to complete "The Poor Itch," a play about an injured soldier returning home from Iraq, scheduled for production at the Public Theater in New York City.

Portrayed in films and on stage, disability in the spotlight or disability rendered obliquely can bear equally important implications. A few years ago I saw the movie "Affliction" with two friends, one disabled, one not. Late in the film the Nick Nolte character confers with his divorce lawyer. As their conference ends the lawyer pulls away from his desk and you see that he is using a power chair. The moment is brief, without emphasis—and therein lies its significance.

As the scene quickly came and went I could feel surprise jolt all three of us. Outside the theater it was the first thing we buzzed about: "Was there a meaning we didn't catch?" "Was the lack of special significance in fact what was significant." "Would the average moviegoer, not tuned into disability, notice anything at all?" "Was the actor himself disabled?"

These questions open a discussion that leaves us hopeful and uneasy in equal measure. We are eager to see ourselves—disabled, gay, disabled and gay—included in entertainment and the arts. We long to see our reality woven into the cloth of everybody's else's reality, and to see it highlighted as its own special reality, too. And why not, after all?

The question turns out to be not so easily answered. Last year, San Francisco's Magic Theatre gave us a partial answer when it staged a landmark play, "The Rules of Charity." What made it noteworthy was how playwright John Belluso chose to embed the lives of his characters in a political context that addressed concerns familiar to all of us crips—social justice concerns, for want of a better term, a combination of the personal and political seen onstage too seldom.

What made "Charity" a landmark doubly relevant to BENT readers was Monty, its protagonist. Monty is not only a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, he is queer as well. Unlike so many crip or queer characters, Monty is not a cameo role or a foil for other, more important characters. He is the main event, probably the most important disabled gay character seen onstage since Ken, in Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July." Ken's being gay was incidental, however, itself significant in 1977, when queers were likely to occupy "problem" roles and disabled characters were unlikely to be depicted at all.

The fact that Monty is queer is anything but incidental. The fact that he is a disabled character full of contradictions, anger, and violent behavior gives him the potential for truth-telling typical of John Belluso's other plays. They include "The Body of Bourne," which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 200, its protagonist the American social critic Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), who was disfigured by childhood spinal tuberculosis. "Gretty Good Time" (1998), concerns a woman paralyzed by polio who resists seeing herself as a victim. Satire and caustic humor characterize "Henry Flamethrowa" (2001), about a long-comatose little girl believed to have healing powers, while "Pyretown" (2003) is an acerbic look at American healthcare.

Those of us who saw "The Rules of Charity" looked forward to how John Belluso might build on the character of Monty in future work. Now we have only his past work to ponder.

To date, "The Body of Bourne" is the only one of John Belluso's plays to have been published.

-Bob Guter

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There is a [literary] canon of disability, but it is always viewed through the lens (a lens smudged with fear and anxiety) of the non-disabled writer. I think it's like any other "minority" group; when the tables are turned and the stories/myths are coming from within the group, old perceptions are shattered. -John Belluso

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2006