The deaf and disabled take to the stage in the world premiere of the first multilingual, intercultural, deaf culture and disability arts theatre project created between the UK and Singapore
“This body is dangerous,” proclaims disabled performer Daniel Bawthan proudly. “Why should we need a cure?” It seems almost unthinkable that in the liberal world of 2018, the deaf and disabled are still discriminated against even today, given unequal opportunities to work and train as the abled are. Playwright Kaite O’Reilly and director Phillip Zarrilli then, have all the intentions of righting this wrong as they craft an all new theatrical work that promotes the social model of disability, eschewing the typical ‘charity’ model of pity to unearth and eke out fundamental problems with the way society views the disabled.
In And Suddenly I Disappear, six deaf and/or disabled actors take to the stage to present stories culled from interviews with members of the deaf and disabled community in the UK and Singapore. The title stems from the phenomenon of wilful ignorance of the disabled in society, in terms of literally acting as if they were invisible, or the patronising way in which abled society treats them. As such, And Suddenly I Disappear then seeks to counter these assumptions and attitudes with a dose of poetry, anecdote and crip humour, presenting to audiences an authentic account of what it’s like to be disabled.
And Suddenly I Disappear focuses primarily on its varied narratives, mostly taking the form of monologues. These are presented with its spectrum of audiences in mind, providing both surtitles and limited audio description to assist in the experience of the performance. As an able person, one feels keenly aware of the differences some audience members might have watching this piece, and wonders how a deaf person might interpret audio described as “smoky” or “dreamy”.
But beyond its technical aspects, there are times the performance itself works to accommodate audiences, from a dual scene in which Peter Sau and Grace Khoo feverishly read off a series of Chinese phrases beginning with ‘残’ (literally disabled), while onscreen, Ramesh Meyyappan and Sophie Stone parallel this with rapid signing, becoming impossible to tell what is being said/signed as the voices/hands fade to a blur. Peter Sau in particular, captures the essence of his characters both visually and aurally in his turn as a mysterious employee speaking abstractly about having to hide a secret that would jeopardise his career, making for a compelling portrayal.
There are times the production showcases interesting breaks in form – deaf artist Ramesh Meyyappan, for example, has multiple numbers where he showcases expertise over the physical body. In the opening scene, he weaves and moves across the stage while a voiceover discusses the nature and shape of water, amorphous and ever-flowing. In another, he tells the story of a man who learns sign language through his hands alone, providing an easily interpretable physicality that is fundamentally understandable beyond any form of language.
While showing glimpses of theatrical potential throughout, one feels that there were many moments in the show that felt as if it were merely scratching the surface of what it could potentially achieve, both artistically and in terms of the issues discussed. There is some brilliant, artistic videography seen here, and plenty of knowledge and lessons to be gleaned from this work, but one wishes that the entire show could have been tighter and more impactful still in terms of both performance and scripting, with more punchy or emotionally affecting moments that might provide even stronger impetus to spark off a discussion about the issues faced by the disabled today.
What is most important about And Suddenly I Disappear is that it dares to claim equal ownership over theatre for the deaf and disabled as do the able, putting actual deaf and disabled performers onstage to represent an authentic experience. It sows the seeds of possibility for further development of deaf and disabled arts here in Singapore, and provides the beginning of a slow but steady newfound visibility. Perhaps now, the conversations between both the abled and disabled will finally start, as they potentially come together to discuss how they could, in theory, work to create a new normal to accommodate artists of all backgrounds and abilities.
Photo credit: Wesley Loh (Memphis West Pictures)
Performance attended 25/5/18
And Suddenly I Disappear will run from 25th – 27th May at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre. Tickets are sold out. A UK tour will commence from 5th – 12th September 2018 with showings in London, Oxford, Leicester and Cardiff. Ticketing details and full schedule to be announced soon.