Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
There was a time when seeing a piece of theater that’s great and historically accurate would have made me impressed. That, alone, would have been enough for me to write a completely praiseworthy review. You Wouldn’t Expect, produced by the American Bard Theater, is all of these noteworthy things. The cast is talented and it should be that simple, but it’s not the case for me anymore. I am an Actor with a Disability who struggles to find work in this industry, as many of us do who have disabilities. Thus, when you see a role written for a disabled character, you get excited as that should provide an opportunity for an Actor with a Disability to perform. But when this role is played by an able bodied actor (which happens all too often), as it is in this show, you become angry. This happens despite the fact that the actor in that role is clearly talented. There are few roles out there for us as it is, so when one comes along we NEED that opportunity. So while I love the script and the actors in the show, the production fails to reach its full impact, which could send a message that transcends mere production. I would be failing in my integrity, if I didn’t make this crucial point. This company is just one of the many ones out there that makes choices like this because they are not aware that by doing this, they are helping perpetuate the myth that it is okay to cast able-bodied actors in disabled roles. It is not okay. I am by no means trying to trash or demean this company, but trying to make others aware of the larger issue.
But back to the show itself. During 1933 to 1973, North Carolina had a eugenics policy, that allowed them to sterilize the disabled to prevent them from spreading their “defective” genes to future generations. The highest attrition rate among those affected was impoverished African Americans. We meet Mary Tom Walker, a white woman, who is in charge of a sterilization sight. Her new assistant, Temperance is African American. During the 1960’s in the south, African Americans were treated horribly. For most of the play we witness the degradation and humiliation that Temperance faces at the hand of Mary Tom. Temperance is basically treated like a slave, and is expected to do everything Mary Tom asks. We side with Temperance as she endures her plight. I won’t give away the climax, but it is very satisfying and cathartic.
Erin Gilbreth plays Mary Todd perfectly. She looks and behaves like a sweet southern woman on the outside, but underneath this veneer lies a mean racist who will destroy anyone who stands in her way. Gilbreth plays this duality brilliantly and we love to hate her. Okema T. Moore plays Temperance extremely well. We witness her inner battle between asserting herself, while trying to cope with the prejudice she faces. Her frustration boils, as does ours, and when she reaches the crucible we jump out of our seats as her justified anger explodes. Ross Hewitt plays Richard Banor, a disgusting human being both on the outside and inside firmly. His brutality and nasty demeanor are as every bit believable as any great actor out there.
So, while I’m an advocate for change and will continue raising awareness about using disabled actors, I also applaud talent when I see it. On one hand this production educates us on eugenics, a notable horrific part of our history, yet they miss the chance to profoundly reach us through the casting choices they made. This cast definitely has great skill and commands the stage! Hopefully one day we’ll be able to say “you wouldn’t expect a disabled character to be played by an able-bodied person”. This discussion runs deep and its one we definitely need to have in the entertainment industry. If we don’t start the conversation, how will change happen?
You wouldn’t Expect plays now through October 7, 2018 at the Chain Theater, 312 W 36th St. 4th floor https://www.americanbard.org/