Think about the last musical, play or other kind of live performance you saw. Was there an American Sign Language interpreter? Was there audio description available for those with vision impairments? Was there a sensory-friendly seating area? Was there companion seating for people who require a personal care attendant? In other words, was it an accessible experience for people with disabilities? Odds are it wasn’t.
David Bradley and the team behind this weekend’s A Fierce Kind of Love, a play about Pennsylvania’s Intellectual Disability Rights Movement, learned early on that wasn’t going to fly for their production. During a “listening circle” as they were developing the play in 2016, an activist with intellectual disabilities asked Bradley directly: “Are people with disabilities going to play themselves, or are other people going to play us?”
“We very quickly realized there was an opportunity—and in fact a responsibility—to tell in the story in an inclusive way what it means to have an inclusive society,” says Bradley. “This was the catalyst to say, ‘This needs to be a play that includes people of different abilities.’ And that’s then what we set out to make.”
This played turned into A Fierce Kind of Love, which tells the largely untold story of our state’s Intellectual Disability Rights Movement through a cast of actors with and without disabilities. After a sold-out run in 2016, the play is back March 1st to 3rd, to kick off Fringe Arts’ inaugural High Pressure Fire Service Festival, running through the spring.
“I hope people walk away feeling connected to the large notion of humanity,” Bradley says. “Everybody as a person needs to be respected, for their humanity. Everybody deserves rights and inclusion.”
A Fierce Kind of Love covers the headlines, like the opening and closing of Pennhurst, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1971 Right-to-Education Decision in Pennsylvania. But the play highlights with equal importance the events and dates not of national, but of personal, importance to those in the ensemble. This mix of the personal and political color in a mosaic of movement, monologue and song that covers the 60 year strong crusade.
The play was written by Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder Suli Holum, who has known Bradley for close to 25 years. The two have previously worked together on projects such 2011’s Fighting for Democracy at the National Constitution Center, a civil rights story about those who had served during World War II, but were denied rights at home due to their race or ethnicity.
“I think in our country right now, we’re paying a lot of attention to what it means to respect the dignity of a person. And we’re seeing too much, where barriers are being put up and rights of people are not being respected,” says Bradley. “I hope people walk away feeling connected to the large notion of humanity. We all have our abilities and things we struggle with. And so everybody as a person needs to be respected, for their humanity. Everybody deserves rights and inclusion.”
Following each performance, audience members are encouraged to stay for a conversation to ask questions and discuss the themes of the work. Evening performances will be followed by a talkback with the play’s performers. Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky, whose award-winning series Falling Off the Cliff chronicled the barriers facing people with intellectual disabilities, will moderate opening night; WHYY’s Jennifer Lynn, and Fringe Arts’ Raina Searles will moderate the others. Matinee performances will be followed a roundtable of community stakeholders, including Tanya Regli, Cade Leebron, Alanna Raffel, Izzy Kaufman, Brad Rothbart, Elizabeth Clay Surles, Katie Samson, and Councilman Derek Green.
March 1-3, FringeArts, 140 N Columbus Blvd. Tickets available here.Photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net