Deity of the Disabled

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April 19, 2004 // UPDATED 1:18 pm - April 25, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

'The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped' avoids easy melodrama with a wicked tale its cast has lived

"Welcome, welcome. What's your disability?" asks the woman in neon orange fishnets. "I'm a prostitute with syphilis."

Welcome to "The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped." Sidle up to the bar/pew, name your handicap/"shadow" and meet your new messiah: a scabby hunchback.

In its staging of Marie Sheppard Williams' short story "The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped," Interact Theater, 212 3rd Ave. N., turns out anything but the expected.

Phil Gleason, who plays the purveyor of Billy's Bar (the church's unlikely digs), says ticket-holders might come for a dose of misguided reverence, expecting to "leave feeling all warm and fuzzy about people with disabilities."

Instead, he said, they'll take a trip to "the dark side" with no railing against dorks who call wheelchair users "crips," nor melodrama about the downward spirals of depression or madness.

That would be too easy.

This production is about what happens when repulsion turns inside out and becomes romanticism. And as the play shows, this can rival outright discrimination as a dividing force.

The play

Meet "Marty," played by Interact staff member, Eriq Nelson. For far too long, he's worked in a day program, where people with disabilities go to work or learn skills.

Alcohol is Marty's good friend, helping him cope with his "family," the people he works with. (It's a dysfunctional family but a family nonetheless, he insists with a slight slur.) "Vange" (Joy Baught), is his kind-hearted, "morbidly obese" sort-of sister, a co-worker who drags him through their daily grind, along with a McDonald's drive-thru.

Vange, Marty and people from their work program all patronize Billy's. One evening a person walks in with the only disability Marty admits he can't stand: a hunchback.

At first, all recoil from the man with kyphosis and a skin condition, played by local star Kevin Kling. Then the hunchback begins to preach the salve they need to hear: that a divine creature -- God if you will -- created those with disabilities to be the shadows on the planet, and nothing can exist without shadows.

In the hunchback's poetry, each hears what he or she wants to. The mentally ill believe they are closest to God because they hear voices. The blind are superior because of their acute sensitivity to see beyond appearances. God created the "Very Special People" with Down syndrome to keep him company, being the lovable, delightful clowns they naturally are. And the rabble-rousing brain-injured exist because God needed people to party with.

Much to Marty's dismay, wheelchair users, "Downers" and others with disabilities flock to his alcohol-drenched retreat to hear the scabby messiah -- and then fight with each other about which "shadows" are holiest. Worse, even the "norms" start to drop in, eager to turn life's vicissitudes -- divorce, an inability to paint in watercolors, etc. -- into ailments to gain entry into this unlikely sanctuary where altar women ask, "What's your disability?"

Sur-reality

Many scenes and much of the dialogue, which the actors helped create, mirrors reality. Yet at times, the production definitely has a Theater of the Absurd quality.

Take the hilarious assembly line scene: workers in the first row slide Ping-Pong balls down a cardboard tube to a person who places the balls, one by one, in egg cartons; meanwhile, workers behind them are busy blowing up balloons.

It seems like the stuff of farce, but it's based on the daily reality of many people with disabilities. At their day program, Vange and Marty's "clients" are doing piece-rate work -- and are paid per ball placement or blown-up balloon. Actual day programs locally and nationally employ people with disabilities in this manner. In fact, many of the actors once did piece-rate work -- and as the scene indicates, they often found the work demeaning, if not silly.

Before coming to Interact in 1997, Karen Thorud, who plays the prostitute/altar girl, was paid 1 cent per package of insurance information she'd collated and also did stitch work for which she was paid per stitch. She also did janitorial work; a staff member determined her $4-an-hour wage by clocking her time per task and comparing it to a "normal" person's rate.

Thus, the loud, disruptive buzz of the timer that "helps" the Ping-Pong ball and balloon workers reach maximum efficiency may incite laughter, but it also strikes a deep chord within many on stage.

Ironically, Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts is itself a day program, under contract with Hennepin County. Yet, when actor Michael Paul, who uses a wheelchair, comes home at the end of the day, he says, "I'm coming home from work."

The program's actors and visual artists (whose work can be seen in the gallery in front of the theater) make from $25 to $500 a month, depending on how much work they sell or the significance of their role.

According to founder and Artistic Director Jeannie Calvit, Interact is the only place of its kind in the world. "Sure, there are arts and theater programs for people who are blind, or deaf, or mentally ill -- but not ones that work with people who have disabilities of different kinds," she said.

Last year, the Interact troupe performed at a European festival that included many groups with disabilities. Calvit said Interact members felt the other troupes held them at arm's length. She said eventually someone told her this was because Interact includes people with developmental disabilities. "And they're the 'lowest of the low,'" she explained.

Calvit said it was a challenge for some actors to lob insults at each other on stage. When a blind man complains about those "Downies blowing [his] piece-rate," it's closer to reality than one might think.

The wheelchair users never stop reminding everyone they'd "still be on the first floor" without them. In truth, activists with physical disabilities are often credited with starting the disability rights movement in the '70s.

Tracy Sletten plays one such activist on wheels. On stage, she wears a navy and white skirt-suit and speaks like a lawyer on a mission. Off-stage, she wears a beige flowered sweater, but it turns out that she planned to be an attorney at one time and shares some of her character's perspective.

Sletten, who has cerebral palsy, was in law school when she suffered a coma that caused significant brain damage. She had to relearn everything, including how to talk. Now she speaks eloquently with nary an "umm." She credits this to Interact staff who re-taught her to talk (hey, you've got lines to memorize) as well as other life skills. When Sletten started at Interact, she lived in a nursing home; now she has her own apartment. Many Interact artists report similar moves.

Like her character, Sletten says, "It's true. It took us [wheelchair users] crawling around on the sidewalk to get this [movement] started."

However, unlike her character in "The Worldwide Church" she tempers her identity-based pride and credits the Vietnam veterans for being the real movers and shakers behind the disability rights movement.

Eric Wheeler, who has Down syndrome, plays the ringleader of "The Very Special People." As one of Interact's founding members, he's quick to remind people that "There wouldn't be no Interact if it weren't for the Downers."

It's unclear if he's joking, and before there's time to clarify, it's curtain call.

"The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped" runs Wednesdays-Saturdays through May 8, 7:30 p.m. (plus a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturdays April 24, May 1 and 8). ASL interpretation is available at the Saturday, April 24 shows, and the April 29 show will feature audio description. Shows are $10-$15 except the April 26 "Industry Night" or pay-what-you-can performance. Call 343-3390 or log on to www.ticketworks.com to reserve tickets. For more information on Interact, see www.InteractCenter.com.