SAN FRANCISCO, 25 October 1999
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Ever Widening Circle: An Evening of Entertainment
Celebrating Art & Disability to Benefit The World Institute on Disability and the Corporation on Disabilities & Telecommunication

STRUTTING OUR STUFF

Bob Guter

Alright, l’ll admit it. I walked in with a chip on my shoulder. To begin with, I’m allergic to benefits. (I can say this with impunity because I just finished working on one for Axis Dance Company and Able-Together.)

If the organizations that benefit from benefits got the kind of support they deserve, we wouldn’t need benefits. Just think of it: Without benefits we could devote our energies directly to the real work of the organizations at hand, instead of worrying about donations of cocktail canapés, what color paper to use for invitations, and how much to budget for advertising.

But I’m responding to this particular benefit’s language, too. I’m sensitive, maybe hypersensitive, to the political implications of Disability Talk—how it reflects our goals and achievements, how it entangles us in thickets of political correctness. So I wasn’t in the mood to "celebrate" disability. I mean, what’s to celebrate? The forces that strike us down, silence us, put us up against the wall day after day? And besides, my trick knee was feeling tricky and my wooden legs felt like they needed a tune-up. Cranky? You bet.

Then poet-performance-artist-activist Cheryl Marie Wade wheeled onstage and knocked me for a loop. (I got the feeling that she does this a whole lot—knocks people for a loop, that is.) She’s a force to be reckoned with. She looks you in the eye and you know right from the start that she takes no prisoners.

With a honeyed voice (badly miked, alas) and a smile that alternates between foxy lady and "put your head on my shoulder, baby," she croons and wheedles and talks her way straight into your very self until you have no choice but to admit that she’s telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, her truth and yours.

Early on she invoked "disability culture." Here we go, I thought. Right up there with "celebrating" disability. Instead of rising to the bait, I sat back and listened. I had to. She’s that persuasive. She’s the Body Electric, an Oracle, a Priestess. In her own words, she’s a "woman who believes in magic, a Super Crip" willing to show you her scars, "visible and invisible."

Her incantations rolled on, reminding me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, "I Am Waiting," but with one important difference: Cheryl Wade is not waiting for a "new rebirth of wonder," she is announcing it, here and now, and her poet’s refrain cautions us to remember, out of all the things she IS, the one thing she is NOT: "I’m not a reason to die."

Not even a fire drill can silence Cheryl Wade, as it turns out. So when a pre-recorded announcement boomed out across the auditorium, "Please Evacuate the Theatre," we thought it was part of the magic, an ironic undercut. But no, we really did have to trudge outside and wait until the fire marshal confirmed that yes, it was a false alarm and yes, here at last was Cheryl Wade, on stage once again, to finish casting the spell she had begun.

The remainder of the first half of the program was a letdown. How could it have been anything else? I wanted to wander about inside the spell Cheryl Wade had cast. I wasn’t finished with it; I felt that she wasn’t finished with me. I wanted to surrender to the revelation, to meditate, with her help, on what it means to live in the moment as a Crip with Possibilities, a Crip With a Life. "I’m coming at you from the inside out," she’d warned us. Well, that perspective takes a little getting used to.

But you know how gala celebrations roll on; there are the fumbling hosts and the announcements and the missed light cues and the necessary self-congratulations. Under circumstances like those take a deep breath and try to put yourself back into that "coming at you from the inside out" mantra if you can.

By intermission, I’d begun to develop a theory. There are two kinds of disability artists, I decided. Category One includes artists who make their art despite disability. Disability inevitably shades their work because it influences who they are as people and therefore as artists. Acclaimed jazz vocalist Diane Schuur, featured in the evening’s second half, has been blind since birth. Her material is not disability-specific; she is, however, an accomplished artist who happens to be disabled.

Category Two, by contrast, is composed of artists who make their art directly and essentially out of their disabilities. Disability is their clay. It’s this second category that validates Cheryl Wade’s claim for a disability culture. But that’s where danger lies, as well, for unless the Category Two artist is equipped with skill and imagination of the highest order, the whole endeavor flops, becomes dull at best, embarrassing at worst, a kind of second-rate special pleading directed at a made-to-measure audience. Yes, disabled artists need to be better, not merely "just as good."

I hadn’t expected to encounter a second exponent of disability culture. Not on the same program. Not at the same level of talent. But after intermission David Roche, fresh from an appearance at the White House, stepped out on stage to destroy what remained of my ill-conceived expectations. Let me try to do here for readers what David Roche did for his audience—push aside the obvious impediment to communication: David was born with a flawed face. A "disfigured" face would be the reaction of most people. It's the first thing you notice about him. You have no choice.

David knows that better than anybody, of course. He also knows how to break down audience resistance. "At the count of three," he instructs us," I want you all to ask in unison, ‘David, what happened to your face?’" We do. Then he tells us.

The best humor grows out of dark, loamy soil. It has deep, deep roots. Those roots enable David Roche to make us howl with laughter one second and weep the next. His comedic genius—for that’s what it is—cannot be reproduced in words alone, because he’s fashioned it from exquisite timing, vocal nuance, body language, all the traditional tools of the comic actor, to which he adds another tool, his experience of being feared and shunned because of his appearance. It’s the mixture of comic technique combined with a deeply examined life that makes his "material" irresistibly human—because his material is himself.

Everybody has a shadow side, he reminds us, "It’s just that my shadow side is on the outside." Or, "I felt better about myself once I realized that my face is a gift from God. It’s not the kind of gift that makes you exclaim, ‘Oh . . . just what I wanted!’ It’s the kind of gift that makes you say, ‘Ahh, you shouldn’t have . . .’" Or, "My friends ask me, ‘David, didn’t your face put a damper on your sex life when you were young?’ Yes, I tell them, but not as much as growing up Catholic did." And so on and on, better than you can imagine, funnier than I can tell you.

This is what disability culture is all about, I decide. So it really does exist. And I feel like a convert, a true believer. Where have I been all this time? Maybe all I needed was the example of excellence. I wish the program notes hadn’t characterized David Roche as a much-in-demand "inspirational speaker" though. Sounds too much like New Age soufflé served up with a ladle-full of Old Time Religion. Gives me heartburn.

Funny thing is, I do feel inspired. Inspired to be a better crip, a more generous man. Inspired to seek out art that acknowledges my crip existence—as long as it's art with no artistic compromise. And I notice as I mingle with the crowd, disabled and non-disabled, that I’m experiencing a new sense of lightness. I don’t worry so much about my limp or my bad right hand. I don’t worry at all that people might be staring at me. Is this what inclusiveness is about?

Benefits? I still don’t like them very much, but I’m glad I came to this one.

©Bob Guter 1999

 

BOB GUTER
is Editor of BENT.

 

for more on disability art & culture:

CHERYL MARIE WADE: Gnarlybone@aol.com

DAVID ROCHE: DaveRoche@aol.com http://www.davidroche.com