This Friday, Sept. 30, Naomi Iizuka’s play “Good Kids” will open in the Stieren Theater. “Good Kids” is an incredibly important play that addresses the issues of rape culture in our social media-driven world. As well as being written by a woman, which only 17 percent of published plays are, “Good Kids” features a diverse group of characters that allow for a much more inclusive theatrical experience than one might normally have.
The narrator of the play, Deirdre, is even in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, there is an able-bodied actress in the role of Deirdre.
It is easy to understand why this would happen; casting and working with an able-bodied actress is often easier than accommodating one that is mobility impaired, but easier does not mean better or right. When was the last time you saw a disabled artist on stage? It has probably been a while. Performance arts are inherently difficult to be involved in as a disabled person. I say this as someone with a handicapped parking placard, a list of doctors in the double digits and an increased reliance on mobility aids. It is possible to find a place in the arts with impaired mobility, but it is an uphill battle (and anyone who has used a wheelchair knows just how much of a struggle going uphill can be). While I am grateful for my time in the Trinity theatre department, I’m starting to think that the reason my path was to leave it was so that I would be in the best position to start this conversation.
An artform that is so inherently exclusionary of those with disabilities should not be trying to represent disabled people without first addressing the lack of disabled artists within it. The first question I was asked when I started digging into this production was “Well what would be your alternative?” So here’s a couple of options I’ve come up with after consulting with a disabled advocacy group:
- The play should not have been done by this department. It is a great play, but if, as a department, we do not collaborate with disabled artists regularly, the production of this play should be left to more inclusive groups. Representation needs to be rooted in inclusion; otherwise it is appropriation.
- An outside actress should have been brought in for the role. I know that sounds silly given that we are an educational institution and ideally all parts should be given to Trinity University students; however, it has happened before. During our production of “Pippin” a child actor was brought in so that the appropriate age of a character could be portrayed, and during “Mousetrap” this past season a professor was cast in a show because he was a great fit for the part, so why could the same not be done to accurately represent this character’s level of ability? There are many amazing disabled artists both in the San Antonio theater community and beyond, so if the department had its heart set on producing this show, a more appropriate cast member should have been brought in.
This letter is not an attack on Trinity theater; I have a deep love for both students and faculty members involved. Instead, I want to start a conversation. Why did this happen? Why, as far as I’m aware, has no one blinked an eye at this?
Disability representation in the arts has taken several huge steps forward in the past year alone; ABC now has a show called “Speechless” that features a child actor with cerebral palsy, and this past season on Broadway the revival of “Spring Awakening” featured a large number of deaf actors.
With so many steps forward in the artistic world, it is depressing to watch Trinity University take a step backwards.
I am not asking for “Good Kids” to be boycotted. I am not asking for anyone to be punished.
All I am asking is, in the coming weeks as this show opens and runs, please consider the fact that the Stieren stage has steps leading up to it and an able-bodied actress rolling around in a wheelchair on stage. As an artist who recently had to take a step back from theater largely due to my disability, I can tell you that that image nicely sums up what an able-bodied world the theater still is.
So let’s talk about it. You don’t have to agree with me to participate in the conversation, but I think we owe it to ourselves and to our university to ask if we could do better than this, because, personally, I believe that we can, and that we must.