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As a longtime theatre lover with cerebral palsy, I've been waiting decades for characters—and actors—who look like meI saw my first Broadway show, Annie, when I was 10 years old. The experience was simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking. Like every other little girl my age in the audience, I wanted to be Andrea McArdle, the performer who originated the role of the plucky redheaded orphan in the original Broadway production. But as I watched the musical, it became clear to me that I would never be Annie. Annie could jump on a bed and dance with a mop and climb into a laundry cart. Since I was born with cerebral palsy (CP) and walk with a cane, I could do none of those things. The realization absolutely crushed me. I still fell in love with theatre, but I understood that being on Broadway was not possible for people like me.
In my more than 40 years of theatregoing on Broadway and beyond, I've rarely seen actors with disabilities on stage. I've seen a few Off Broadway, like Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome and starred in Amy and the Orphans at Roundabout Theatre Company and Corsicana at Playwrights Horizons. And there are small theatre companies Off-Off Broadway dedicated to showcasing performers with disabilities, such as Theater Breaking Through Barriers. But I never saw my own experience represented until I attended Teenage Dick, a brilliant play by Mike Lew at The Public Theater starring Gregg Mozgala, an actor with CP. A modern-day reimagining of Richard III set in a contemporary high school, the show centered on a student with CP running a ruthless campaign for senior class president. Like me, he had an awkward gait and trouble doing everyday tasks like putting shoes on, and he was frequently ridiculed and ostracized. Finally, something resembling my struggle was depicted on stage (although I do not prove to be such a villain). Oh, how I wished it could transfer to a big Broadway theatre so more people could see the play and Mozgala!
That's why I was thrilled when I heard Mozgala was going to make his Broadway debut in Cost of Living alongside another performer with a disability, Katy Sullivan, who is a bilateral transfemoral amputee. I saw Martyna Majok's powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning play when it ran Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2017 starring Mozgala and Sullivan. Now it has transferred to Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre for a limited engagement. It's a beautiful story about income inequality, loss and the need for human connection. But it's also an unflinching, no holds-barred exploration of living with a physical disability—all the difficulties, indignities and microaggressions that people like me face every day.
The play centers on two separate duos: estranged spouses Eddie (David Zayas) and Ani (Sullivan), who recently became a quadriplegic due to an auto accident, and John (Mozgala), a grad student with CP who hires Jess (Kara Young) to help him with daily grooming. Both Ani and John use wheelchairs and their everyday challenges are staged honestly, including bathing and dressing.
John's CP is more severe than mine (and Mozgala's), but I still relate to him. He can't rely on his body and requires a lot of help, yet he is well-educated, witty and refreshingly blunt about what it's like to have a disability. My favorite line in the play is when John tells Jess, "I can basically do anything I want except the things I can't." It brought me to tears to hear my truth spoken out loud. I cannot, now or ever, do anything I want. I can't ride a bike or run to catch a bus or walk while holding a drink. Similarly, in a scene where Eddie is desperately trying to lift Ani's spirits, she shuts him down by saying, "I'm sad 'n pissed. 'N I'm gonna be pissed 'n sad, fer however long I'm pissed 'n sad, 'n that's fine." When she said that, I almost screamed out, "THANK YOU!" It was the first time I heard my feelings validated in a show.
There are many days when I still get angry about how hard (or impossible) it is for me to do things that are easy for other people. I'm tired of the constant inspiration porn that disavows my reality—all those stories about blind mountain climbers, one-armed gymnasts and other "heartwarming" triumphs over disability that saturate the media. The truth is, for every one of those folks, there are thousands of us just trying to get through the day. In Cost of Living, there is no triumph. There is just, well, living.
In 2019, when Ali Stroker became the first performer who uses a wheelchair for mobility to win a Tony Award, it was a literal moment of triumph. The press hailed it as a turning point. But I wasn't as jubilant. Not because Stroker wasn't amazing or didn't deserve to win—ironically, I didn't see her history-making performance as Ado Annie in director Daniel Fish's reinvention of Oklahoma! because I find the accessibility experience at the Circle in the Square Theatre particularly degrading. I was glad she won but remained skeptical because I believed her situation was an anomaly. Despite some strides in inclusive casting—like Fish, directors Sam Gold and Robert O'Hara and Deaf West Theatre have also cast actors with disabilities as characters originally created for nondisabled performers—it's still exceedingly uncommon.
Until recently, actors with disabilities have rarely been allowed to play characters with disabilities, let alone nondisabled parts. Worse, for decades the entertainment industry bestowed awards on nondisabled actors playing characters with disabilities. This has been particularly egregious in Hollywood—see the Oscar wins for Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. But this kind of casting has also happened on Broadway: Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Andrew Keenan-Bolger as "Crutchie" in Newsies and every Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol save for the most recent revival.
There have been a handful of exceptions. Phyllis Frelich, who is Deaf, won a Tony Award in 1980 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. Almost 40 years later, Lauren Ridloff, who is also Deaf, was nominated for the same role in the 2018 revival. And Madison Ferris, who uses a wheelchair, played Laura in Sam Gold's 2017 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie.
Still, when Stroker encouraged young kids with disabilities to pursue their theatre dreams in her Tony acceptance speech, I worried she was giving false hope.
The arrival of Cost of Living on Broadway is the watershed moment I was waiting for. It stars actors with disabilities who are telling a story in which their reality is organic to the play. It presents the characters as complex, funny and flawed individuals with sex lives and dreams. It reveals the ins and outs of their day-to-day existence without pulling punches. And it challenges audiences to watch people with disabled bodies, to not avert their eyes or pretend the disability isn't there; to really see what it's like to not be able to do simple things that most folks take for granted.
For theatre to truly be a viable career option for people with disabilities, we need more plays like Cost of Living. We need more playwrights to insist that these roles be cast authentically. We need people with disabilities in casting agencies, producing offices, orchestra pits and everywhere else. We need mentors willing to advise and encourage young theatre enthusiasts with disabilities about how to break into an uninviting business. We need more than one Tony Award every four decades.
Given Broadway's current focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, I hope Cost of Living helps theatre-makers understand that it isn't just about race, ethnicity and gender. It's also about us.
Ronni Krasnow works as a librarian. In her far more interesting life as theatre nerd, she runs the Ahrens & Flaherty Facebook page and creates theatre-related collage art.
Top image: Gregg Mozgala and Jolly Abraham in Manhattan Theatre Club's 2017 Off-Broadway production of Cost of Living. Photo by Joan Marcus.