Challenging Shakespeare’s worldview of disability

Head shot of Michael.Guest post: Michael Szporluk, DRO Board member 

On Sunday evening a packed audience watched the Artist Repertory Theater’s performance of Teenage Dick. I’d been given a head’s up by Disability Rights Oregon, where I’m a board member, that the show may be of interest for its casting choices. Two of the actors, including the lead role, are persons with disabilities.

Physical Disabilities & Entrenched Stereotypes

The play is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard announces from the outset he is “deformed” and a “hunchback”, and that accepts his role as the villain. Wickedness or moral depravity and physical “deformity” have been co-associated for centuries, and certainly pre-dated Shakespeare. As such, it was a convenient and easy device to reinforce Richard’s badness.

The twinning of physical “deformity” and mental/moral shortcomings in literature has outlasted Shakespeare and become further entrenched. Examples are endless: in Poe, Dickens, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Morrison, etc.[1] As a side, the bones of the real Richard III have been exhumed in the past ten years, and definitively prove that he was not, in fact, a “hunchback.” Shakespeare gave him that characteristic, presumably because he was aware of his audience’s prejudices.

Casting People with Disabilities in Plays & Films

Moving to the question of casting in plays and film: inexcusable decisions to cast white actors and actresses in parts written with a person of color in mind (so called “whitewashing”) has been met with justifiable outrage and has led to calls for inclusion riders. Yet it is still commonly accepted to cast non-disabled persons in the few roles that should go to actors and actresses with disabilities.

While there are many examples of poorly made movies that have terrible messages about persons with disabilities (“Me Before You” comes to mind), there are notable movies that cast famous non-disabled actors in roles where they play persons with disabilities. Nos Magazine (an online journal), notes,

“Over the past 30 years, 13 actors have won the Best Actor award by portraying a character with a disability, while another 14 have won Best Actress. All actors portrayed characters with disabilities that they do not personally have. The only example of a disabled actor winning an Oscar is Deaf actor Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.”[1]

So casting Christopher Imbrosciano, who has cerebral palsy, for the role of Richard was encouraging, but it should be a given that the part be played by a person with a disability, just as women should pay female characters, and persons of color should play characters of color. For a good example of how absurdly difficult it is for persons with disabilities to be allowed to represent their own experience, watch Maysoon Zayid’s TedTalk.

So a positive sign, but hardly revolutionary.

Shifting Away from the Medical Paradigm of Disability

I have nothing but praise for Christopher Imbrosciano’s acting ability.  It was a strong and powerful performance. That said, re-setting Richard III in a modern day high school (with even social media playing a role) missed the opportunity to challenge the dominant medical paradigm of disability, one that equates physical “deformity” and moral depravity.

The audience hears the story from Richard’s perspective – i.e. that the years of being bullied has turned him bitter and vindictive, and that reveal elicits some sympathy (at least, early on) since everyone loves an underdog. Further, the character Buck, played by Tess Raunig (who uses a wheelchair), demonstrates that persons with disabilities can take the high road. But importantly and unfortunately, Buck’s arguments don’t carry the day. Her hopes of finding companionship and love yield no fruit.  Richard doesn’t heed her advice, and the others ignore or scoff at her. A stronger and more disability-friendly message would have shown her being accepted by other students, for example, and could have shown a relationship develop with her love interest in the jock, Eddie Ivy.

Mocking People with Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

This leads to another shortcoming: with just one exception the other students are caricatures. The part of Eddie is filled with exaggerated stereotypes about dumb jocks. While some lines generate a few cheap laughs, they are at his expense, and thus don’t allow the actor, Nick Ferrucci, to challenge the audience. It also places an unintended dissonance. If the jock is such a slow learner, is he a person with an intellectual or developmental disability? If so, then the play’s mocking of him (which the play does repeatedly), both sets back and further divides the disability community. We need to show respect for and the dignity of all persons with disabilities. The lines of another student, a devout and ambitious Christian, played by Alex Ramirez de Cruz, are simply too brash and thus unbelievable.

Challenging Shakespeare’s Worldview

The exception is that part written for Anne Margaret, played by Kailey Rhodes, the love interest of Richard and Eddie’s ex-girlfriend.  One of the most arresting scenes was when Anne Margaret explains, just before she commits suicide, the injustice of the story. She states forcefully that Shakespeare failed to give her the role she deserves, that she is not the person others on stage or in the audience believe her to be. This was one of the highlights of the show, and stood in such stark contrast because it showed that we don’t need to accept Shakespeare’s sexist language nor his demeaning characterization of women.

Since the show signaled that it can challenge Shakespeare’s worldview with respect to gender, why do we have to accept the creation of the role of the “deformed” villain (especially now that we know Richard was not “deformed”)?  Why can’t an actor with a disability play a part that does not reinforce an age old and negative stereotype?


[1] A fascinating book on disability representation, Ato Quayson’s Aesthetic Nervousness, provides a typology of nine ways in which disability tends to be presented in literature, only one of which (and the one that is least common) is “normal”

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