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Rockin' the Boat: NYC Special Education Student Actors Ace "Guys and Dolls Jr."

Guys and dollsBy Barbara Fischkin

After the curtain call, we approached the actors and begged them to autograph our Playbills. Some were gracious. One was overly enthusiastic. Another wanted to go home. Or maybe it just seemed that way because he did not look us in the eye. Mostly, their signatures were shaky. They had to concentrate when they signed, as if this was a harder thing to do than sing, act and move to the score of “Guys and Dolls.”

As they all just had.

Yes, the actors were all disabled and, as is probably obvious to readers of Age of Autism, some were on the spectrum. In real life they are teenaged students at a Special Education New York City Public School in Harlem. A “District 75,” program, as such entities are called – all too often with a cautionary tone.

As for the show – it was great. It was alternately touching, joyous and funny at all the right moments. A spectacular “Adelaide,” sang that just from wondering whether the wedding is on or off, “a poiyson,” could develop a cold. I am told that offstage this student says “person” not “poiyson,” and she picked up this Adelaide-ism from studying the movie. When she said to her actor boyfriend of 14 years, the inveterate gambler "Nathan Detroit": “Nathan, you are a liar,” and he shrugged with emphasis, the audience broke up.  As it did when the shortest actor in the cast jumped up and announced, with great confidence, “I’m Big Jule. Let’s shoot crap.”  “Sarah Brown,” hugged “Sky Masterson,” quickly, as tentative as any Salvation Army “doll.”  As for Sky, I would have gone with him to Cuba for lunch in a flash, as well as on a boat to heaven with the student who played “Nicely, Nicely Johnson.”

After a prolonged standing ovation, one mother of a cast member said, joyously: “I didn’t know who it was up there.”

 Our children surprise us. My own younger son, Jack, who spent his earlier years more interested in ice hockey than anything else – is now 27 and a teacher at this school. He was one of the assistant directors. (This is the same son who teased me mercilessly when I told him that “acting in theatrical productions” had been my own favorite high school “sport.”) As a New York City Teaching Fellow, Jack earned a master’s degree in special education. I worried about his choice of this field. His older brother, Dan, now 30, has severe nonverbal autism and I felt that Jack had perhaps already done enough special education for a lifetime.

“Mom, I like this kind of teaching,” Jack told me. Clearly, he does.

 It was notable for me that most of the actors had memorized their lines. Without labeling, let’s just say that in the cast there were those who might not be expected to accomplish much.  One actor had to be wheeled on and off stage, another had trouble finding the curtain to exit.  Nevertheless, the show went on.

It is not overly dramatic to say that had they been children mid-twentieth century, some of the actors in this show might have been sent to Willowbrook, a nightmare of an institution.

 Two decades earlier our own disabled son, Dan, was denied participation in a school show in a school for disabled children because “it might hurt his feelings since he can’t talk.” Balderdash. The students at this District 75 school who were nonverbal or minimally so were living it up as guys and  dolls in the chorus and on the boat to heaven. Sometimes, as an audience member, my eyes wandered to them as I watched them steal the show on their own terms.

What I saw on this recent evening was a school with dedicated staff who “presume competence” and appreciate the “dignity of risk,” watchwords of the disability and advocacy communities.

I would like to end with a bouquet of thanks to all those who made this performance - officially titled “Guys and Dolls, Jr.” -possible with funding and other supports: The Schubert Foundation, Music Theater International, the New York City Department of Education Office of Arts and Special Projects, ArtsConnection, I Theatrics, - and the staff, teachers and community of the wonderful school where my son teaches. For more on how a show like this happens, please see FundforPublicSchools/Shubert

Author Barbara Fischkin is writing an autism-related historical novel and is a Communication Manager and Writer for CUNY's Queensborough Community College.



Barbara Fischkin

Thanks to Denise and Peggy and replies.

Alas, it is not on videotape as far as I know. If there is another performance and this changes I will be sure to let A of A know@

Peggy: This was a middle school production,=, As for adults with autism, ye the services and opportunities are paltry nationwide and our country should be ashamed of this. We are lucky in that our own son with autism, 30, has many services and opportunities through the agency that provides his group home - and self-direction funding organized by the New York State Office of People With Disabilities. For the self direction funding, families often need to do a lot of legwork. If you email me through my website or Facebook message me and let me know where your grandson lives I might be able to connect you to people who can help. I know about the situation in only a few states but would be glad to help if I can,

Peggy Jaeger

Wonderful. It would be wonderful to see our adult grandson do something besides wander thru his house all day.....even respite care people never seem to accomplish much with him, tho he is cognizant about ..a lot of 'things'. This play then seems like a miracle to me, a most welcome miracle. May this organization be blessed of God and last forever as long as there's a need...


I thoroughly enjoyed this article and wished I could see the production! Is it on video anywhere? I’d like to show my colleagues in our districts SPED Department

Barbara Fischkin.

And many many thanks to director Kaitlyn. Kudos. Brava and thanks to Kaitlyn for presuming competence to a fare-the-well. ❤️❤️❤️

Barbara Fischkin.

Yes. Hope. Thanks to everyone

Laura Hayes


I am not on FB, but I have asked the teacher to send you the flyer for our “Song Squad” program :) Thank you for helping to spread the word!

Should others be interested, here are the FB event links for all 6 summer classes :)

Loraine Fishel

Thank you for something to smile about today. Beautiful to get some real live good news. There really are some angels alive among us. This piece gave me a thing I can't always find much of namely hope.

Lynn Zisa

As a retired educator, I was amazed with the level of accomplishment, dedication, and pride that was evident throughout this production. The director, my daughter Kaitlin Zisa, kept us abreast of the progress throughout the process. What brought her and the other staff members the most pleasure was constantly raising the bar as the students continually surpassed expectations. The self-confidence these students displayed as they realized their goals was especially edifying for those of us who had the privilege of attending this uplifting performance.

Barbara Fischkin

Bob Moffit, thanks so much for getting exactly what I was trying to say!
And Laura Hayes, best of luck with what seems like such a worthy effort. And hats off to you and all involved in the program. Particularly the young artists who perform. If and when you can please post something on my Facebook page. I have many friends and relatives in Sacramento area.

Laura Hayes


Thank you for sharing the success of this inspiring production with us! Nice to read something uplifting this morning :)

This past March, I started a Music and Singing class for teens and young adults with disabilities in the greater Sacramento area, taught by my son’s former junior high and then high school Choir teacher. It meets twice a month for 90 minutes and has been lots of fun. We have just set up our summer schedule. Hoping this program grows, and that it inspires the start of other enrichment programs for our now young adult children who need continuing opportunities for learning, fun, and community.

Hats off to your son, Jack...and to his wonderful mother! :)

bob moffit

"What I saw on this recent evening was a school with dedicated staff who “presume competence” and appreciate the “dignity of risk,” watchwords of the disability and advocacy communities."

It sounds like a great show .. the stark contrast between a dedicated staff who "presume competence" and appreciate the "dignity of risk" .. and far too many others who believe just the opposite .. as George Bush Jr defined as .. "exercising the soft bigotry of low expectations".

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