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No One As Nasty

Joy Of The Desolate

(See below for dates, times, and locations.)

Two world-premiere plays with minority protagonists in search of their identities: one a middle-aged disabled woman; the other a young Native American man. The plots of such dramatic works usually develop along two very divergent paths: the protagonist finds identity either within the minority group or within the majority culture. Susan Nussbaum's NO ONE AS NASTY at Victory Gardens Theatre courses along the former path; Oliver Mayer's JOY OF THE DESOLATE at Apple Tree Theatre takes the later. Both plays are successfully staged, although the Apple Tree production is a technical tour de force. But NO ONE AS NASTY is the more satisfying dramatic work.

There were fewer than twenty in the audience. The performance in the intimate second-floor studio lasted less than 90 minutes. There was no intermission. I was utterly captivated by the Victory Gardens Access Project production of Susan Nussbaum's NO ONE AS NASTY: the energy and skill of the seven-person acting ensemble, especially Lusia Strus as Janet, the symmetrical design and fluid operation of the four geometric panels of the set, the masterful direction by Susan V. Booth. I was also intrigued by the complexity and freshness of the ideas about the disability experience. NO ONE AS NASTY is indeed the "darkly surreal romp" promised in the press release.

Nussbaum has explained the importance of a member of a minority finding identity within the minority group: with any kind of minority "anything that you experience is your fault, until you begin to politicize it. . . . Once that minority's experience is politicized, the fault is no longer that of the minority's but instead the society; the society is what needs to change." As a result of this realization, "the world changes and that group begins to feel a sense of community, a sense of worth, and a culture; you belong to a group with its own unique sense of pride and humor." The group no longer looks to the majority culture to define them, but instead begins to define themselves. These definitions allow the individual members of that minority to be 'OK' again, to be 'you' again; one has options and choices in life again. (Kathleen Rose Winter, "Writing Abilities: Disabled Gays and Lesbians 'Stare Back'," Outlines , Lambda Publications, 1997).

NO ONE AS NASTY uses classic surrealistic techniques to present the uniqueness of being a "crip" in the world. In the 1924 "The Surrealist Manifesto," André Breton defined surrealism as a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy are joined to the everyday rational world in "an absolute reality, a surreality." Nussbaum creates this surreality with a montage of reflective monologues, dreams, fantasies, and enactments of the physical mundane encounters in the life of a disabled person. Nevertheless, the play is not simply a non-dialogic narrative; the relationship of Janet with her African-American caregiver Lois provides dramatic conflict. Yet, this conflict is presented, not represented. Janet tells of past encounters with Lois and her realization of the significance of the relationship in defining her. She presents elements of their history through an actress who is her doppelgänger in the same costume and motorized wheel chair. By interpreting this relationship, Janet presents to the audience, the majority society, her definition of being disabled—with all of its incongruities and exigencies. This presentation educates the audience, thereby effecting a change.

NO ONE AS NASTY presents the disability experience from the inside out. Janet is "staring back" at the audience. She is telling us what really comprises the culture of the disabled—the real, the fantastical, the dreams. She is not simply reflecting back what the audience sees when we stare at the disabled. In the opening monologue Janet explains that a disability is often the result of an accident, not a punishment. She moves from this declaration to one that seems more banal: one of the essential facets of being disabled is the problem of "the help." During the performance, there are scenes presenting dreams of dancing and skating, fantasies about Christopher Reeve—the celebrity, the disabled Superman. There are tableaux of the myriad caregivers and drivers. There are scenes with Janet #2 interacting with caregivers: scenes about being moved from the bed to the wheelchair, setting the temperature of the shower water, clipping toenails, pulling up her pants, adjusting the length of her pants legs. There is a confrontation with Janet and her double, who feels guilty because she is relieved that she is not crippled. There is a scene when Janet's female lover breaks up with her, not her disability.

These short scenes, vignettes, are interwoven with scenes of Janet's relationship with Lois. The relationship of African-American caregivers and their "charges" are often stereotyped—the caregiver is either the comic, addle-brained, lazy, incompetent thief or the militant racist. Nussbaum's vision of the relationship of Janet and Lois is dark and ironic. The title NO ONE AS NASTY is Janet's imagining of how Lois defines her. It is also Janet's acknowledgment of her real feelings about Lois. Janet moves to a realization that she does not really want Lois to be her friend; that the hatred Lois has experienced because of racism is better than the pity Janet experiences because of her disability; and that she hates her dependence upon Lois because she fears she will divulge intimate details about her disability. Janet exclaims "I want privacy" when Lois leaves her. However, at the end of the play, she is able to affirm that she must "redouble her efforts" to embrace even her need for help in her life. The song "I am Superman [I can do anything]" ends the performance. Janet has found her identity as a disabled person.

Oliver Mayer's JOY OF THE DESOLATE is presented in a not-so-intimate 177-seat performance space. The two-hour performance includes one intermission. I was awed by Apple Tree Theatre's production; the set, lighting, and especially the sound are simply bedazzling. The four stationary playing areas of the minimalist set—the dorm room, the bridge, the chapel, and the organ—are evocative. The chapel is beautifully suggested by a stained-glass cross on a scrim of a Madonna's full face. The music is sumptuous—ranging from jazz, Native American chant, spirituals, Bizet, and Bach to Hathaway. The premise of the play is quite intriguing: the journey of the Native-American student, D.C. (Don Carlos) toward identity in the Ivy-League world beyond the reservation. Even though the play has a more traditional two-act structure, it is presented in many short scenes that include the spectral appearance of D.C.'s long lost hippie mother and Donny Hathaway! Geraint Wyn Davies' direction of the excellent nine-member ensemble results in a flowing, liquid movement of these scenes. But this exacerbates the problem with the play. In JOY OF THE DESOLATE the protagonist is "staring into" a world that is different from the minority community on the reservation. D.C. finds his identity in this majority culture. But, the structure of the play does not allow us to see exactly what that world is.

In finding his identity, his joy, the Native-American protagonist does not become an anglomorph, but assimilates into the majority culture. The play begins with the absolute aloneness, the desolation, of D.C., who is a freshman at an Ivy-league university. While he is at the college, away from the reservation, he is informed that his father has died. His mother abandoned the family years ago. The play presents his learning to "breathe" in this majority culture. The harmony of the minority and majority cultures is achieved through classical choral music. D.C. unites with members of the chorus to sing Bach's "Magnificat. Yet in the final scene, he finds his identity by singing a solo of "Deep River," a favorite spiritual of his father. He is able to perform with the Oedipal "inspiration" of his mother's spiritual presence.

Geraint Wyn Davies writes in the "Director's Notes" that in the play "[w]e discover a person, a person through other persons. And that even in desolation we must still seek joy." In the final scene, D.C. sings his solo surrounded by the entire cast—the other persons who comprise the diverse melting pot culture outside of the reservation. Except for the wise, heart-of-gold prostitute Cynthia (Ora Jones in a nicely nuanced performance), these are not the stock characters of a coming-of-age drama. There is the student couple, Dan and Holly, who provide the two other sides of a classic love triangle, but who introduce D.C. to classical music, the need to sing to find one's voice. There is the feminist minister Brigid, who is "involved" with HRMF, the choral master; both of them have crises of faith. There is the African-American gay roommate. These characters are deftly drawn, in profile. Still, because we in the audience, like D.C., are "staring into" their world, we want more; we want the full portraits.

Although NO ONE AS NASTY and JOY OF THE DESOLATE arrive at different destinations for their minority protagonists, both plays were well worth the "transport."

--Sandra Marie Lee


NO ONE AS NASTY. Susan Nussbaum's drama. Susan V. Booth directs. Victory Gardens Theater, second-floor studio, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000. Through July 2: Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $20. Note: The 8 PM show on Friday, June 30, is sign interpreted; the 8 PM show on Friday, June 23, and the 3 PM show on Sunday, July 2, are performed with audio description; the 8 PM show on Friday, June 30, and the 5 PM show on Saturday, July 1, are captioned for the hearing impaired. Call 773-871-3000 or TTY 773-871-0682.

JOY OF THE DESOLATE Oliver Mayer's drama, Geraint Wyn Davies directs. Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Pl., Highland Park, 847-432-4335. Through July 9: Wednesdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 3 and 7 PM. $24.50-$28.50.

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