We opened our new show last night--- Ping Chong's INVISIBLE VOICES, a show of and about people with disabilities, but for all of us. The house was full. The performances were richly emotional-- not from professional actors, but from real people speaking the truth about themselves and their lives. In one sense the entire show was deeply anti-theatrical (when you consider most theatre is about people dressing up and lying in exciting ways). INVISIBLE VOICES is a show even those theatre hating puritans who fled England to create a more truthful and transparent society would have endorsed.
But it is also subtly and brilliantly theatrical, given pulse and pace by inspired directorial and scenic design. And the six performers are costumed and characterized by their disabilities more exotically than any ordinary costume shop could provide: Rick and Sandy are in wheelchairs (one from an injury, the other from an illness); Rebecca is blind, accompanied by her guide dog Rizzo (he did not steal the show,though he had his moments). Beautiful Kelly''s prosthetic legs and her "weird' fingers are fully on display. Billy is deaf, expressively signing his way through the show, with his lines voiced by an actor. Only Kevin is disabled in disguise (you would never know at first glance that he has suffered a traumatic brain injury).
The show is also something more than the compelling life histories of six people. Ping Chong has skillfully braided these stories so that distinctive people with particular disabilities tell a larger story of how these socially "undesirable elements" confront, challenge and engage with a society that often marginalizes and diminishes them. Last night some of the performers were shaken. Rebecca lost her place for a moment when she turned two of her script pages by mistake. Rick, sitting next to her, said, "I wish I could help." But of course he couldn't, and neither could the rest of us, though we all wanted to. It was a vivid window into the isolation that disability can bring. But no matter-- Rebecca soon found her way. Indeed the show was very much about people with disabilities finding their way, and very often with great good humor.
The resonance of INVISIBLE VOICES extends well beyond the physical conditions of the performers. The show reminds us that disability can happen to any of us at any time: in the strict chronological sequence of the narrative adheres, it was more than half way through the evening before we learned how three of the performers acquired their disabilities. And surprisingly, the emotional watershed of the evening came when one of the performers told us about his estrangement from his biological father, who disappeared when he was seven (and before he was disabled). That moment, when the performer was overwhelmed with his grief and pain, was stunning not only in itself but because it reminded us how life experiences of a kind not usually catagorized under disability can be the most disabling of all. The moment also was testimony to the cleansing and purging power of the theater--something Aristotle noted several years ago.
Like OUR TOWN, which is wonderfully running in repertory, INVISIBLE VOICES invites us to witness particularities but to consider life in a larger and longer way than we usually do. Kevin explained that in his way of thinking, disability simply puts people on a steeper path on the road we all travel. He thinks, he explained, that most people are only temporarily able. So very true. Disability r us, sooner or later. Many thanks to Ping and his company, and to the six fabulous performers onstage, for giving us such a great life show.