A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women
Fox, Ann M., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
In a recent talk I gave, titled "Fabulous Invalids Together: Why Disability in Mainstream Theater Matters," I asked: Why should we care about theater in this age of multiple visual media? And more to the point, why should we care about disability in theater, given how crips onstage have been so unimaginatively imagined? In response, I argued that we needed to understand a figure I have deemed the fabulous invalid, borrowing the title of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1938 play of the same name in which theater is represented as an invalid who is down but never out, perhaps dying but not dead yet. (1) In essence, I posited, this is a potentially rich figure that we ignore at our peril; it is one that
we also need to update and embrace in considering the dramatic representation of disability, particularly in the face of the unceasing parade of disabled characters who limp, stroll, and sit on American stages. What if we rejected a "cure or kill" mentality in critical analysis of our own, hacking away from demanding that images be either politically resistant or polemically resisted? What if, instead, we embraced the idea that the range of disabled characters onstage over time, creates for audiences a kind of figurative "fabulosity"?
This fabulous invalid, then, is a paradigm for understanding productive tensions in theater, for refusing to reject a given representation of disability as politically ineffectual just because it may seem to contain elements of the conventional or stereotypical, and for reclaiming those aspects of disability representation that do important aesthetic and political work.
But, of course, the fabulous invalid has other aspects to her identity than disability. In his landmark essay "Is Disability Studies Actually White Disability Studies?" the late Chris Bell pointedly and satirically presents his own modest proposal for perpetuating the bias of what he names White Disability Studies. "When you come across a non-white disabled person," he writes, tongue firmly in cheek,
focus on the disability, eliding the race and ethnicity, letting them he run over, forgotten. Do not consider how the intersection in which this subject lives influences her actions and the way she is seen. Choose not to see that intersection and move on down the road of disability, away from the "perpendicular" roads of race and ethnicity. The fact that the intersection exists is not your fault. It is prime example of poor engineering. (378)
Bell's point is, of course, that these intersections of the different aspects of embodiment do matter and that we bypass them at our own peril; therefore, the fabulous invalid cannot be assumed to be the normate in every other way except disability. What, then, do the multiple identities of this figure offer as they intersect with disability, enhancing and enriching our understanding of how disability functions to make drama more fabulous in its very querying and queering of multiple social structures?
In works by contemporary African American women playwrights, disability works with race and gender to give voice to the lived experience of being a disabled person of color, to call attention to common experiences, and to enhance an understanding of identities as socially constructed. Some examples include Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus, which tells the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Bartman, the infamously nicknamed Venus Hottentot, whose excessive body was put on display for sideshow audiences in the nineteenth century; Parks's In the Blood, which references forced sterilization as it was deployed against poor, African American women; Lynn Nottage's Ruined, which shows the physical aftereffects of rape used as a tool of wartime violence in the Congo; and Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy, which depicts illness and the contingency of the human body. These playwrights figure disability in various ways: to recount history, pain, sexual violence, caregiving, the disposability of disabled bodies of color in American society, and the intersecting and stigmatized experiences of women of color and the disabled. …