Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Staging the Complexities of Care: Martyna Majok's Cost of Living

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Staging the Complexities of Care: Martyna Majok's Cost of Living

Article excerpt

Introduction: A New Kind of Disability Drama

The representation of disability in mainstream drama is complicated. Debates about casting disabled actors and maladaptive metaphors are vital. But what other kinds of discussions do we need? My work on disability in mainstream drama has long asserted that disability's presence in it can be understood as more subversive than has been allowed.1 While not denying ableism in drama, this allows us to take nuanced views of disability. This in turn pushes at an understanding of what is activist and at what is defined as disability, allows us to see the presence of allied portrayals in unexpected places, and refines our understanding of the presence of disability in dramatic history. It has helped me ask questions as diverse as: where do early African-American women playwrights show an understanding of how disability and race were inextricably intertwined? Might we consider The Glass Menagerie a more radical text than we might initially expect?2

But I want to use this article to write about a more recent dramatic trend: scripts that foreground disability in ways not just subtly disruptive, but heralding a more complex and progressive representation of disability on the American stage.3 While these plays may not emerge from within disability arts and culture, they form an important complement to it, expanding the range of works within which we might discern important stage manifestations of ideas central to disability theory and activism. While mainstream drama has always been obsessed with disability as a stereotypical trope, in recent years, plays produced in some New York theaters have placed more complex, realistic disability experiences front and center, including Stephen Karam's The Humans, Amy Herzog's Mary Jane, and Majok's Cost of Living. What happens when disability is an occasion for drama in ways that unfold powerfully beyond the conventional? What happens when it is treated as a truly intersectional identity? And given that, what can we then understand about what is really possible in terms of cultural conversations about equity, justice, and the body by radically re-shifting of the use of disability in conventional realist theater? In response, this article considers the example of Martyna Majok's play Cost of Living. A mainstream play already unusual in prominently featuring disability and the casting of disability actors, it does something important for an understanding of disability in mainstream drama. The play's exploration of care and connection is mitigated through disability; but here, disability does not become the obvious reason for and symbol of isolation. Instead, the play suggests that human isolation (and its attendant causes such as racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia) cannot be ameliorated without being explored and addressed in ways specifically informed by the knowledge and experiences of disabled people.

Majok developed Cost of Living for the 2016 Williamstown Theater Festival, based on her 2015 one-act play called John, Who's Here from Cambridge; it premiered off-Broadway in 2017 at the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) to generally positive reviews, particularly around its use of disability. Two pairs of characters are the play's focus: Eddie and Ani, and Jess and John. Eddie and Ani are a separated working-class couple; Ani has become disabled after driving drunk and is now a quadriplegic. John is a wealthy PhD student at Princeton with cerebral palsy who hires Jess, a recent Princeton graduate, as his home attendant. Both relationships are tentative and prickly at first; Jess is isolated and alone, and working several jobs while living out of her car. John has never hired his own attendant before, relying on agencies that now reject him because of his penchant for lawsuits. Whether out of class privilege or a search for agency of his own, he works to intimidate Jess in their first meeting. Eddie offers to be Ani's caregiver when she scares off yet another nurse. …

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