Editors' pick

Inside/Out

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Editorial Review

‘Inside/Out’ at Round House Theatre

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, June 16, 2011

A sixth-century sarcophagus in China bears the earliest-known image of a wheelchair. That’s one historical tidbit dispensed during “Inside/Out,” a show that looks at disabilities through the eyes of the disabled and demonstrates that even after so many centuries, the able-bodied still often view people with impairments as foreign entities.

But a trip to Round House Theatre this weekend to take in Ping Chong and Company’s play might change that.

“Anyone could become disabled or could acquire a disability at any point in their lives,” says Sara Zatz, who shared writing and directing duties with Chong. “I could be walking down the street today, and tomorrow I could be a person with a disability.”

The show, which was commissioned by VSA, formerly known as Very Special Arts, debuted at the Kennedy Center in 2008. It’s part of a series called “Undesirable Elements” that Chong created in 1992 as a way to examine “otherness.” The productions follow a format that the company calls oral history theater. Chong and Zatz choose a handful of performers for each show, interview them about their lives and experiences, and craft a stage piece from the material.

There are seven leads in “Inside/Out,” and their stories vary wildly. Some have always lived with highly evident and rare ailments (Matthew Joffe, born with Moebius syndrome, has almost no control over his facial muscles); others have become disabled more recently. Vivian Cary Jenkins suddenly lost much of her sight five years ago, and Blair Wing has used a wheelchair since a car accident at age 18. Those stories diverge from other “Undesirable Elements” shows, which typically look at culture shock and immigration issues. But while the general population might encounter immigrants more often than people with disabilities, “Inside/Out” might feel more relatable.

“If you’re born in the U.S., you will always be born in the U.S., but when it comes to disabilities, it’s something that might descend on anyone at any time,” Zatz says. “Even if it’s not a sudden and life-changing disability, just as we all age or we have parents that age, those moments of disability become more and more part of our lives.”

Along with the individual accounts, the production also delves into the larger picture.

“It is personal stories of trials and tribulations, but it’s also about the history of the civil rights movement in the disability community,” Chong says.

Although that might sound like heavy stuff, the delivery isn’t. Along with a fair amount of comic relief, the show is laced with an uplifting vibe.

“What I like about this production is how these folks have been very affirmative with their lives, that their disability hasn’t stopped them from living,” Chong says. “So it’s not a depressing show; it’s an affirmative show.”

It also offers audience members a chance to consider how they would react if they were in the shoes of those onstage.

“It’s a very human show,” Chong says. “Yes, you look and these people are different than you, but by the end of the show, they’re not. And that’s the whole point.”