Justice is blind. Or is he? And would it matter, to us, to our trust in him to tell the truth, to guide us through the future? What if fate moved through the stars in a wheel chair, and destiny's children did not all adhere to the same standards of "normalcy?"
Interact Center's Between the Worlds doesn't portray Fate, or Destiny, but it does begin with a prophet, played with sonorous authority by local poet and performance artist J. Otis Powell, who first appears blind and then discards his great shades and white slim cane to move with confidence - begging us to ask the central questions of this play: what is the difference between ability and disability when it comes to world views, and whose view do we trust more? And finally, how different from each other are they, and is there any hope for resolution?
With a cast of 45, the play is an ambitious revision of West Side Story, with song, dance, rivalry, intimacy, group numbers, solos, humor, and tragedy. Instead of or the Sharks and the Jets, the warring factions are the "Norms" (those of normal body and mind) and the "Crips" (the differently abled). The two gangs are not formed by urban territory, or race affiliation, but rather by attachment to two great families. Harkening back to the tragic clan wars memorialized in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet through the Montagues and Capulets, Between the Worlds underscores the eternal nature of this dichotomy, its power to divide and order the world of human existence, through the addition of a kind of origin myth. The very beginning of the play depicts the timeless existence of this war by the birth of children (through a phenomenal staging of a cosmic vagina) into the embrace of the Norms matriarch (Lola Lesheim) or the Crips matriarch (Tracy Sletten). From this "origin of the world" cosmology, Between the Worlds tells the story of a world ruled by the singular distinction of physical and mental ability.
Despite moments of humor and moments of poetic beauty, and a kind of veneer of innocence that any story borrowing from the tradition of Shakespeare's tale of adolescent angst gone terribly wrong, Between the Worlds is serious stuff. Its best moments, however, are perhaps not where the cast [or, director Jeanne Calvit] wanted them. Interact Center is known for its courageous theater; its mission is to serve the theatrical and artistic needs of adults with disabilities. This production is the result of a collaboration with Tutti Ensemble of Australia, and it includes local talent as well. (a few more sentences on the cast - mixing abled actors with differently abled actors to give everyone serious training). This collaboration is clearly the product of decades of the disability studies movement , which seeks to highlight not just the social prejudices held against differently abled people but also define,validate, and celebrate their cultural specificity.
With roots in the civil rights and feminist movements, the disability studies movement broadly seeks to define how society considers and values "difference." Disability studies fights the condescension, pity, and paternalism that so often characterizes certain social service movements geared toward the disabled. And in this regard, Between the Worlds makes a masterful contribution to the movement. After all, when you think about it, "just one banana peel" is the real difference between a Norm and a Crip, as the chorus of one of the group numbers menacingly tells us. Someday,at some point, we'll all be old, wheel-chair bound, senile, incontinent. "Normal," or even "abled-bodied," is a temporary statement.
In this first scene of gang confrontation, the tension is palpable. The whole point of West Side Story is that both gangs are fundamentally alike, with conceptions of belonging and entrenched notions of prejudice being the sole distinctions. So with the Norms and the Crips of Between the Worlds. The Crips are menacing, strong, convincing, the biggest distinction beingthe relative novelty of their arguments to a typical audience. And the play is anything but condescending to its cast, where beautiful voices, excellent dancing, and remarkable stage presence are the marks of a well-trained and talented ensemble.
The same may not be said for its audience, who might have felt more than a whiff of condescension in the script. The story is a familiar one, of course: Boy Oliver (Sam Videen) and Girl Isabella (Aimee Crathern) are born into two rival families, whose imperious matriarchs also rival each other in their condescending and controlling attitudes toward the futures of their children. Oliver and Isabella are drawn to each other with all the swiftness and histrionics of most teenage love stories, and while this is part of the pathos of the story, it also detracts from the sobering reality and level-headedness of the company's mission. It was hard to be moved by a script that called for a talented singer to command presence through a solo with lyrics about an ugly duckling turning someday into a beautiful swan, and it was distracting and downright disappointing to see the desperation of two young lovers take form on stage through a unmitigated tantrum.
It's not just that this stuff is serious - Between the Worlds does not fall into that trap, and clearly integrates the humor and beauty in a diverse world into its production - rather, it's that this stuff should push us to think differently about all sorts of things -what the price of family and parental expectations are on children, what adolescence might mean in a world of difference, what metaphors and images we might begin to use if we truly understood the presence of the diversely abled in the world, on the stage. The play disappoints because it doesn't push theater far enough, and as a consequence sells its audience short. We're ready for harder stuff, and can't wait for Mixed Blood to serve it up.