The Big Hill: Better Stories Through Inclusion
In a time when the support for autistic actors playing autistic roles is rapidly growing and when Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is able to run on Broadway and received three Tony Nominations, one would hope that I would be less pleasantly surprised when I see disabled individuals perform disabled roles. Sadly that is not yet the case, as I was thrilled while watching The Healing by Sam Hunter, at first for the groundbreaking-feeling of seeing six actors of differing disabilities on stage playing characters with various disabilities, and then for the excitement of recognizing the beginnings of a well crafted Sam Hunter Idaho-set community drama.
The play opens on Sharon and Donald in their friend Zoe’s apartment watching the Home Shopping Network and mindlessly eating cake. Slowly we realize Zoe has passed away and her childhood friends are left to arrange her funeral and pack up her belongings. More friends begin to appear, and eventually we learn they all used to bunk together as kids at summer camp. This was not your ordinary summer camp though, it was a Christian Scientist camp where this group of young physically disabled individuals were taught they could pray away their disabilities. As the group of friends grew older they they became disenfranchised with the camps teaching and eventually led the charge to close the camp down and fire their faithful counselor, Joan. However, Zoe was the odd man out who never really let go of the possibility that prayer could change her circumstances, which may have ultimately led to her death.
Now, this “Big Chill,” scenario is familiar to many contemporary audiences; old friends reuniting over tragedy has has been recycled by many a play or movie plot, but new life is breathed into it by Sam Hunter’s use of individuals who are not often in the spotlight, as well as his fearless discussion of religion and faith. It no longer felt like the recycling of an old idea, as much as a pertinent and necessary conversation. In a time when the value of gathering a diversity of voices and experiences “in the room” is being acknowledged but not yet always executed, hearing those voices, both literal and figurative, was so refreshing.
Rather than innovative stories, perhaps what the theatre needs right now is innovative characters. After all, the plot of Hamilton can be found in any History textbook, but the diversity of the cast breathes new life and light into the narrative. At a time when gender, race, identity, disability are all growing in their public understanding and visibility, is it any wonder that it might matter more who is on stage rather than what is on stage? Now don’t get me wrong, the plot that Hunter has written is absorbing and compelling, but ultimately I left that theater feeling so excited to have seen six incredibly talented disabled actors perform roles that did not ignore or gloss over their disabilities but instead embraced and utilized those disabilities for the betterment of the play. Ultimately this play proves that the greater the diversity of voices in the room, the better the story being told.