'Inside/Out': Riveting Tales of Disabilities -- Firsthand

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 30, 2008

Compelling true stories were promised and delivered in "Inside/Out . . . Voices From the Disability Community," presented over the weekend at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater by VSA Arts. The show, part of writer-director Ping Chong's "Undesirable Elements" series, used a recital format (chairs, scripts, microphones) to fine effect as seven people wove their tales into a riveting chronology.

The show's march-of-time sequencing went back to a 1927 Supreme Court case upholding the involuntary sterilization of a disabled woman. From there, Chong and his writing and directing partner Sara Michelle Zatz served up the firsthand tales of their seven subjects, each testifying in person. The progression moved from despairing mid-century diagnoses through the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and right up to the minute.

"I'm getting my Equity card," Christopher Imbrosciano announced near the end of the show.

Imbrosciano has cerebral palsy, and as he detailed his journey he shared a very funny story about beating up fellow students with his crutches. The show had a wide streak of humor, but it also had theatrical snap as Chong employed his tested method of overlapping the tales and punctuating chosen moments with unison hand claps.

There was a certain amount of role-playing, too, as participants briefly enacted parents and doctors, skeptics and supporters. The approach was quick and dry -- sentences tended to be short and factual -- yet the performance was consistently powerful and eye-opening. Don't know much about Moebius syndrome? Meet Matthew S. Joffe, who explains its effects (his face can't move), and describes his fears and successes as he's lived with it. Or listen as Vivian Cary Jenkins tells about the 18 surgeries she's had as she's recently become legally blind.

Paralysis, deafness and living with a mother slowly dying of multiple sclerosis were among the conditions and situations that have challenged these individuals. Every so often, one performer asked another, "What does disability mean to you?" The responses were personal and sometimes surprising, and the question compelled viewers to consider for themselves in the wake of the show's coolly shared, sharply rendered lives.

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