Physical Difference Diversity is something performing arts can address in creative ways. There are examples of diversity stories on Broadway from the tragic transgender rock opera, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, and the complex family story, “FunHome”, to the racially diverse, “Hamilton”, and the Deaf West Theatre company’s production of “Spring Awakenings”. Diversity has come to mean racial diversity. There’s no doubt we need more people of color on stage. But maybe that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Playwriting for physical difference is one way to chip away at the diversity problem.
Actors in Wheelchairs
One thing we don’t see on stage is actors who use wheelchairs off stage. This year was the Broadway debut of a wheelchair bound performer. Ali Stoker won her role with a killer audition. Her physical difference didn’t deter producers from casting her. And yet there are very few areas of diversity so overlooked. There are characters with physical differences; “Wicked”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Children of a Lesser God”. Yet, as “New York Times” critic Neil Genzlinger notes, “it remains a rare occurrence, and as a result Broadway remains unrepresentative of the full range of humanity.” The problem with Ali Stoker’s debut is not that she is singing, dancing, and ASL signing lyrics from a wheelchair. The problem is that it happened just this year. After over 150 years of Broadway performances, producers finally decided it was time for wheelchair bound actors to play wheelchair bound characters.
While many call Stoker’s wheelchair debut “inspirational”, all the artist with a disability really wants is an equal opportunity. As audience members, we must support shows that feature a wide range of physical difference. Diversity on stage is both reflective and cutting edge. Over 20% of Americans has a disability. So why are we uncomfortable with disability on stage? Diversity is our strength. If hiding our differences makes us weak, it seems like embracing our physical differences makes us strong.
Nicole Z Nicole Zimmerer is a playwright, and actor. In addition, she’s an advocate for casting people with physical differences. Nicole has been writing and producing plays most of her life. She recently graduated from the University of Houston Playwriting and Dramaturgy program and will study playwriting as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon in the fall. Nicole and I talk about her beginnings, the Kennedy Center performance of her one act play, “Falling with Grace”, and her recent full-length play, “Thicker Than Honey”. Finally, we discuss her fight to represent artists in wheelchairs through playwriting. As a result of living with Cerebral Palsy, Nicole understands how it feels to speak up for her rights. Finally, she’s being heard.
Extras on SallyPAL
Be sure to listen until the end for Concise Advice from the Interview. I have 5 great bits of advice from the beautiful, funny, fiery, and talented, Nicole Z. Don’t miss Words of Wisdom from George.