On Friday, July 27th, Community Access Unlimited staff and members gathered at the theater to watch Kathryn Grant’s new play “Handicapped People in their Formal Attire.” Performed in a quaint theatre at Kean University’s campus, the performance given by Premiere Stages was intimate and moving, as guests empathized with the raw and too often unspoken sentiments of the cast.
Upon entering the theater (which was accommodating to all physical abilities), we were greeted with welcoming smiles and eager hands to assist in seating. The seats were closely placed and guests were invited to take part in the “formal affair” by sitting at the sporadic candle-lit dining tables and chairs throughout the theater, creating an inclusive atmosphere for the performance.
The play follows the history of sisters Agnes and Theresa and the struggles that go along with being caregivers and a member of the disability community as it is evoked through their arguments and tears. As the title suggests with the use of the word “handicapped”, the play takes place prior to the use of “people first” language. Prior to attending, CAU was warned of Grant’s choice of language as potential offensive, but kept in mind that the language was appropriate to the 1968 setting. That being said, the CAU team entered the theater with indifferent expectations and mild hesitancy regarding the language.
The curtains drew, accompanied by band music and an illuminated purple banner prominently displaying the words “Delaware Association for the Handicapped.” “My impression was – when the two sisters came out – I didn’t really understand what was going on at first” Sid Katz recalled. The play began with the audience eaves dropping on the two protagonists Agnes (Rachel Pickup) and Theresa (Lori Hammel.) Agnes, the president of the Delaware Association for the Handicapped was accompanied to the fundraiser by her witty and frank older sister Theresa. Agnes, frail woman with cerebral palsy, is confined to her wheel chair, is dependent on Theresa throughout the evening. The scene opens humorously with Theresa openly bashing the hotels choice of Cornish hens for dinner, deeming it “inconsiderate” for those who have physical disabilities. Agnes, true to her cheery and regal disposition, politely redirects her cynical sister and basks in the glamour of the evening. This small scene and clever banter foreshadows the juxtaposed personalities of Agnes and Theresa, as well as the tension that mounts between them throughout the play.
Despite taking place during a single formal dinner, the play successfully touches on sentiments of race, sexuality, religion, and most importantly the challenges that people with disabilities face, especially in 1968. As the evening of regality and fundraising progresses and the attendees of the gala fill up on alcohol, the true emotions of the characters are revealed. Agnes, as the president of the Delaware Association of the Handicapped, is preoccupied throughout the evening with the attendance of the monsignor – her parish’s priest, her former teacher, a benefactor of the association- who, in turn, becomes preoccupied with the bottle. The conversation between the sisters and the Monsignor (Ed Setrakian) becomes both dynamic and uncomfortable for the audience as Theresa’s frustration in the Church is disclosed.
The play reaches its first climax at the end of the first act when Theresa escorts Agnes to the bathroom. Agnes becomes critical of Theresa’s behavior and jealousy and exhaustion take over Theresa as she reveals dissatisfaction with her personal life, in addition to pent-up aggravation from the years of responsibility being Agnes’ sole caregiver. This sibling tension, expressed in Theresa’s tears, insults, and profanity had the audience holding our breath in anticipation of Agnes’ reaction. This tension between sisters characterized the remainder of the play.
Grant’s ability to touch on a variety of controversial issue – loss of religious faith, people with disabilities race, and sexuality – truly embodied the diversity of the disability community. That being said, Grant’s range of character conflicts allowed her to relate to every person in the audience, regardless abilities. For the CAU staff and members in the audience, the eloquence of Agnes and her stoicism was inspiring. Equally, Theresa’s lament and frustration struck a chord of both discomfort and sympathy in the audience. Caring and loving someone with a disability community – as demonstrated by the cast of “Handicapped People in their Formal Attire” – is a symbiotic relationship, as well as a mutual challenge for the caregiver and receiver. However, often, the feelings of the caregiver go unspoken or overlooked to the needs of the person with disabilities. This play voices those feelings, taking the audience on a journey of discomfort and confrontation of reality – especially the reality of living with disabilities in 1968.
Additionally, the play was welcomed reminder of the strides the disability community has made within the last half century. Prior to the implementation of people first language and the signing of the ADA in 1990, the lives of those living with physical and intellectual disabilities were overlooked and ostracized wildly by society. The play served as a nice juxtaposition as to how far we have come in the disability community. No longer are words such as “handicapped” or the “r” word used in the common vernacular. Equally, facilities are becoming more accommodating physical disabilities. For example, true to the 1960s, Agnes had to be carried on and off of the stage in her wheel chair prior to delivering her speech. It was a welcomed reminder that what we in the disability community has come to expect out of public services and vernacular were not always the case.*
Although, what tugged at the heart strings the most for members of the disability community was the scene in which Theresa briefly abandons Agnes in the ballroom. “What really upset me is when Agnes was left by herself; there was nobody there to help her.” The feeling of abandonment seemed to have resonated with the disability community, both at the familial and societal level. Self advocate Gary Rubin acknowledged “Family is supposed to take care of each other, but that doesn’t always happen. I know that first hand.” For Gary and Sid, watching Agnes’ plea for help was one that transcended the theaters limits, and one that applies to all members of the disability community.
That being said, the most powerful part of the play was not the words or emotions exchanged on stage, but merely the fact that persons with disabilities were shining in the spotlight, where their disabilities took a back seat to their true talents: acting. Sid Katz and Gary Rubin agreed “…each actor came out and embraced their disability, not as part of the role, but as part of themselves… and each actor played their part exceptionally.”
*However, this acknowledgement of progress only proves to us at the NAMPWD the adaptability of the “status quo” and the progress that will continue to be made.