Notes in memoriam—John Belluso 1969-2006
By Victoria Lewis
Anton Chekhov once wrote: " I acquired my belief in progress when still a child. I couldn't help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous." John Belluso's brief life coincided with a period of great social change for people with disabilities. In 1969, the year John was born, the educational, employment and cultural expectations of a significantly disabled child without financial resources were dismal. At his death he had experienced a great success in the American theatre, though surely more was to come. He had that success writing about a taboo he was warned to avoid, one that would "ghettoize" him—the disabled body and its place in the body politic. For those who have not lived it, the newness of this understanding of disability and its place in public life might not be apparent. It's only a generation old.
When John was about a year old, the 1970 Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act became law, mandating access on mass transit, the mass transit that John would use with such finesse to navigate New York, Providence and even Los Angeles.
In 1973 when John was 4, the Children's Defense Fund found that 750,000 American children between the ages of 7 and 13, did not attend school –the vast majority of those ¾ million children were children with disabilities. In 1977, the segregation and neglect of disabled children were challenged by the passage of federal legislation guaranteeing all children a right to an education in the least restrictive environment.
In that same year, 1977, about the time John was being embraced by a slightly inebriated Jerry Lewis on a telethon, 200 people, many severely disabled, staged a sit-in in the San Francisco Department of Health Education and Welfare that lasted 28 days and resulted in the signing into law of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1977. Section 504 prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities in any institution receiving federal funding. Section 504, then, mandated access in most of the newly built regional theatres, as those theatres were founded in part by federal funding from the newly established National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1988, not long after John dropped out of high school, the Gallaudet University uprising resulted in Gallaudet's first deaf president, I. King Jordan.
In 1991 the Americans with Disabilities Act, after demonstrations across the country, including one in Washington, D.C. in which dozens of disabled people threw themselves out of their wheelchairs and began to crawl up the Capitol steps, was signed into law. John received funding from the Rhode Island department of Rehabilitation to study, not playwriting initially, too risky, but journalism.
In 2003, John wrote an artist's statement in which he reflected on the role that history had played in his development as a playwright: "Although too young to have participated in it, I think of myself as a writer who is born of the contemporary disability civil rights movement of the mid to late 1970s. I’ve always felt that it was the creators of that movement who paved the way for the life I live now. Without the civil rights laws they struggled so hard to force into passage, without the history they changed, I doubt I would have been afforded the opportunity to seek out training and create a life for myself in the theatre arts."
For many of us in the disability community, John Belluso's passing has left a vacuum: where will we find another such poet to tell the stories of private and public desire that come with the lived experience of disability; another courtier of such seductive sweetness able to open the doors of America's most esteemed theatres, move onto the stage and bring us with him? In 1924 WEB DuBois called for an African American theatre that was "about us, by us, for us and near us." John has not been the only writer to fulfill DuBois's mission in the context of the disability cultural movement but he has been the most prolific, and his plays have been and will continue to be produced throughout the country. He wrote extraordinary roles for the disabled actors, such as Anita Hollander, Clark Middleton, Ann Stocking and Christopher Thornton, he met on his journey. In 2001, the stage door and the entire backstage of the Taper had to be renovated for the world premier of his play The Body of Bourne. A ramp and accessible, ground-floor dressing rooms and bathrooms were installed, causing Tony Kushner to comment: "How many playwrights physically transform the theater they're working in?"
John himself would probably reject this emphasis on his individual importance –he was after all a socialist and his dramatic work challenged the dominant narrative of disability in Western drama "the triumph of the exceptional individual against a personal tragedy." And as for prophecies of doom, he would counter, "I live my life every day with a great deal of optimism for our future as a society. I believe optimism is a radical weapon. Reactionary forces feed on cynicism."
So I take John's offer of optimism as a match grant. The gift can be matched by continuing efforts on the part of professional and academic theatres to foster nontraditional casting of disabled actors; internships for young disabled people; scholarships in our training programs for disabled talent; the building and modification of our physical plants to make it possible for disabled audience members, actors, stage hands, light board operators, etc. to participate as a matter of course in the making of theatre; and play commissions for writers with disabilities.
And we will have John's plays to remind us that the conditions for disabled people in America today are far from optimal, that social services for the disabled and elderly are targeted by economic policies that want both tax cuts and increased military spending.--all those drowned people in their wheelchairs lined up at the door of the nursing home in New Orleans – waiting. We will return to his plays to listen to the "weak" rather than to the "strong," in order to survive.
But those of us in the disability community, the one minority group anyone can join and will join if they live long enough, say our goodbye. John's work crossed borders and spoke to many, but that universality was grounded in the lived experience of disability. He wrote about us and for us and most of all he was near us and we will miss his body beside us, near us.
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