I wrote the below piece this past December in response to Disabled Theater by Jérôme Bel/Theater HORA, a performance I attended at the Walker Art Center in November 2013. At the time, I did not share this writing with anyone. Yet upon reading Jeanne Calvit’s response to Bel’s work on the Walker Art Center’s blog, I was motivated to return to the piece I wrote and share it with our community. Although several months have passed since the performance, I believe it is important to share my response and that of others from the disability community who share my feelings. If we stand by and do nothing, nothing will change.
I have a stepson with significant cognitive and developmental disabilities. I know my kid. I understand his nuances. I see the detail of who he is. I believe in him. I watch him learn, and it fills me with joy. Given the opportunity, I would love to see him perform on stage at the Walker Art Center. Yet I cannot say I would want to see him perform in a piece like Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater.
I wanted to love that performance, to see it as I would if I were watching my own son on stage, but instead I felt outrage. I spoke with many other audience members who felt disappointment and dismay after seeing the work. I don’t think one needs to know all the nuance and detail of a person to value him as a performer. However, I do believe that, as a society, we shouldn’t let a work like Disabled Theater pass by without comment. The stereotypical presentation of individuals with intellectual disabilities in Jérôme Bel’s work leads me to believe that he did not make much effort to learn who they are as people. It seems he was not curious about their passions. That perhaps he could not see their real potential.
I am sure many people believe that a piece like Disabled Theater is a step in the right direction; after all, it features individuals with intellectual disabilities, whereas the bulk of contemporary performance does not. In my conversations with others after the show, some made comments like, “It creates conversation, conversation that is not happening.” Perhaps. But to me, most of the conversation it created is already outdated, evoking little more than pity. In my opinion, the piece did nothing to progress that conversation. Individuals with disabilities face some of the most intense discrimination of any population in our community; and while Jérôme Bel put adults with intellectual disabilities on stage, he did not make any discernible effort to shed light on their depth or potential.
If Jérôme Bel’s work was intended to be contemporary – then why did be not approach this population in a contemporary way? Why not challenge the audience to catch up to who individuals with disabilities actually are? Why not invite a vision beyond what we already think we know about this overlooked, underserved, misrepresented community? Art can be an invaluable tool for social change, yet it also has the dangerous capacity to stall out a conversation, limit views, and minimize the collective vision. I fear Bel’s simplistic approach to working with this population risks the latter.
If you’re interested in contemporary work that challenges societal perceptions, consider visiting one of the 50+ adult day programs around our community. Engage with the individuals there, the adults with disabilities who comprise more than 12% of our population. Be curious about their passions. Believe in their capacity to engage and learn. Create with them–collaboratively. You will find a richer, more complex perspective, a more complex human, than Jérôme Bel has shown us.