By 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.
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.