How To Celebrate An Artist?

Photo of set by Audrey Moyce

When I walked into the lobby of the New Ohio to see Our Voices’ production of Charles Mee’s soot and spit, I was warmly invited into the intricately constructed, raw-edged and delicate world of American artist James Castle (1899-1977). I was enchanted by the reconstructions of his work lining the walls, and a beautiful diorama showcasing Matthew Imhoff’s set design at the box office. As the house opened I was not disappointed to see the real thing: real dirt on the floor, canvas walls and windows roughly stitched together, off-white to be projected upon, heaps of stacks of paper and cardboard tied together like newspapers, meant to represent Castle’s prolific oeuvre. As the show continued, the art design continued to delight, which is was deftly executed by a sizable crew (media design by Boyd Branch, costume design by Haley Peterson, props by Leontine Greenberg, associate costume design by Jennifer Anderson and costume crafts by Cybele Moon.

The show begins with a prologue given to us by the narrator, played by Chris Lopes. Though his words were sometimes difficult to understand, I recognized them from the program; his entire first speech had been printed inside. This choice was made because Lopes has special needs, and  instantly I questioned whether the choice to print his speech was patronizing. Was his speech expected to be less intelligible than the others, thus requiring additional help from the program? This was something I continued to wonder as the show went on, and I noticed that one more ensemble member (Karen Ashino-Hara) was also differently abled.

The topic of disability is interesting in discussion with Mee; his frequently cited casting note says that although he is “an old crippled white guy,” his plays “don’t take race and disability as their subject matter.” This play is an obvious exception: artist James Castle was born deaf and profoundly autistic. He never learned to sign or speak, but made drawings out of household materials—including both soot and his own saliva—his entire life. As the prologue says, “in this way he made art / because / he needed to make art.”

I began to think of other performances with differently abled actors I had heard about. One, Sam Gold’s recent production of The Glass Menagerie; it featured Madison Ferris as Amanda, who has muscular dystrophy. Two, Jerome Bel’s work with Theater Hora—an entire theater company of people with disabilities—titled Disabled Theater.

Bel’s work was lauded by some, but questioned by others: with a group of actors all with cognitive disabilities, questions of agency and exploitation abound. And despite the fact that Bel’s stated intention was not to direct them, but rather to give them a space to do what they wanted onstage, critics have questioned the emphases on his process and perspective in the way the piece was structured (see Alexis Clements’ review in Hyperallergic for one such cogent analysis:

Disability in the theater is something I am very excited is being introduced more and more, in ways that are provoking and nuanced; that said, this production raised questions in its execution. Another element of this: the actor playing Castle (JW Guido) is himself deaf. His performance was generally impressive and occasionally moving—one highlight included the intense focus he gives Castle as he spits on a ripped-up dollar bill to make his next shade of paint. That said, watching Guido “play autistic” with grunts and slumped posture was troubling to watch. Was this choice meant to remind the audience of our own discomfort in the face of disability? Or was a less careful assumption made—that, since Guido is actually hearing impaired, he is also qualified to portray a different disability? This being further complicated by an absence of societal gudience, for making disability so taboo that we do not know how to react to the sights and sounds that seem illegible at first glance.

The nine remaining actors seemed very out of sync with the dreamlike landscapes Mee tends to create in his plays. Instead of an ensemble that gelled and worked as a team—who could give and take focus appropriately as the collage-like plays of Chuck Mee’s almost invariably require—the audience was presented with the polish of a musical theater company which seemed to want a Broadway stage instead of the small New Ohio theater. They wore “look at me!” smiles the entire time, attempting to psychologize scenic moments into linearly logical scenes. Perhaps director Kim Weild chose to have the ensemble sing much of the music Mee infuses the piece with, and perhaps those who are trained to sing onstage are not often also trained to perform in plays without a linear narrative.

The result of this batching of performers was that, in any given ensemble dance or scene, Lopes and Ashino-Hara were easily the most interesting performers to watch. They had spontaneity and the illusion of the first time; they were focused and unselfconscious. Ashino-Hara was particularly present as a dancer, fully doing the thing she was doing and making the stakes evident.

Jérôme Bel speaks of this topic eloquently. He believes that performers of all abilities must “be as much as he or she can in the present, not in the reproduction of something which has been done before during the rehearsals.” And actors with “cognitive alterations,” he says, “can do this easily. They are connected to the present in a way that others are not. They are connected with their emotions in a way that others aren’t” ( Bel believes that this theatricality is unique to the stage, and therefore powerful and necessary for the theater to include.

With all this in mind, soot and spit left me with two enduring questions.  The first I have somewhat already addressed: why are we having an actor play at having a developmental disability, when there are two differently abled actors onstage? The second was: why is this piece, ostensibly highlighting the life and reality of a deaf and autistic artist, so dominated by sound? Is it not almost obscene to make a piece so musical, when its central character never heard a single note of music?

All of Chuck Mee’s scripts are available on his website, the (re)making project. Hoping to get a bit of insight into this production, I went to compare the script as he has it there, vs. the press script. On the website, it reads similarly to other plays of Mee that I know: fragmented, chaotic, a little bit sad. Every time, my takeaway from his writing is something like: this world doesn’t make sense. Therefore, making art that tries to make perfect sense doesn’t make any sense.

The press script for this production, by comparison, seemed to make its jagged edges glossy, and this explained the tension I felt at watching a series of near misses over the course of the ninety minutes. A gunny sack race with “six people with Down Syndrome” becomes six stiff musical theater actors uncomfortably hop across the stage in potato sacks. The use of music in Mee’s original script provides an opportunity for us to see James Castle’s attempt to join in, whereas in Weild’s production it allows trained singers to showcase their talents—“newgrass” composer John Hartford is even, inexplicably, a named character in the ensemble. Songs that have no use for psychological logic are hammered to fit into it, thus ringing tedious and confused.  

A more intuitive medium to explore the life of a deaf visual artist might have been through dance. This show has a bit of it, some sequences performed rather shakily by the “Lady in Black” (Alida Rose Delaney) and a movement sequence performed with incredible control by John Ford-Dunker, described in the script as “lurching, stumbling, shuffling butoh [sic] walking / lurches on his tiptoes / falls over to the side / goes into a crouch / goes to the ground / writhing.”

JW Guido and Ensemble – photo by Nina Wurtzel

During a long segment, the ensemble dons cardboard box costumes to play James Castle’s “people”—the doll-like creatures he created, sometimes in order to act out the things he saw in everyday life. This act of the show was pleasing and interesting for a while: watching Guido delicately place shoe boxes with holes on the feet of Laura (Geraldine Leer) was a small insight into John Castle’s particular way of caring for another person, even if in this case that person was one of his imagined characters. In addition, the monologue Laura then gave happened to have some of my favorite writing in the piece. “I have a marvelous capacity for misery and for happiness. / I am broad-minded. / I am a genius. / My brain is a conglomeration of aggressive versatility. / I have brain, cerebration – / not powerful, but fine and of a remarkable quality,” she says from behind a cardboard mask. Perhaps expressing some of the thoughts Castle harbored?

Director Kim Weild writes in the program that to her, at its core, this show is “about the intrinsic nobility, tenacity and perseverance of the human spirit.” But it is also, she admits, about her bond with her profoundly deaf brother. In my experience, passion projects can go one of two ways: that of dedicated excavation to what will make a project great, or that of love blinding the process so that what results is a muddy dedication that cannot step far enough away from the project to see what the story needs to be told. As I watched, I did not see the figure of James Castle emerge strongly enough for us to see his “nobility, tenacity and perseverance,” because the show was overlaid with so many bells and whistles. That said, I did get a glimpse of his struggles, and an exquisite feeling for what his physical world might have felt and looked like.

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