Cripping Up and Other Indignities: “PermaDeath”

Presented by White Snake Projects
Dan Visconti – Composer
Cerise Lim Jacobs – Creator and Librettist
Pirate Epstein – Co-Librettist
Cori Ellison – Dramaturg

September 27–29, 2018
Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street in Downtown Boston

Critique by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) I had such high hopes for PermaDeath. It is a forward thinking libretto and score but its ablism, racism, and homophobia are disappointing. That this opera is problematic, is an understatement.

Articles and interviews leading up to PermaDeath highlighted the gaming aspects of the opera but shied away from the elements of disability. Disability, when mentioned, was discussed as a character element that the performers and crew had to maneuver around for motivation (Google “PermaDeath opera + ALS”). The articles treat disability as an afterthought. Gaming is considered a safer topic even though being a female gamer can be deeply unsafe. The authors, cast and crew missed a great opportunity to discuss navigating the internet while disabled and female in this, our time of #metoo #gamergate and the Kavanaugh “trial.”  

PermaDeath’s full synopsis is here. Sonny (Maggie Finnegan) is a gamer with ALS. As she games, she becomes more aware of the affects of ALS on her body. She navigates her grief in the digital World of the Gods and in the real world. PermaDeath did not cast a disabled woman in the lead role of Sonny, a character with ALS. This is sometimes called cripface by the white disabled community. Finnegan has a gorgeous soprano and maneuvers her wheelchair with skill. She is still cripping up. It’s offensive. 

Representation matters. Art that claims that it is about the disabled community that doesn’t include the disabled community is inspiration porn. Our motto is, “nothing about us, without us.” It isn’t enough to borrow our stories and invite us to the production after rehearsals. It isn’t enough to host discussions or support the work of other disabled artists outside the production. Companies must include us as performers in the role of the disabled character. Anything else reads as tokenistic lip service. The disabled community must be given the opportunity to represent itself.  

The performers sang with excellence. The acting was good for an opera (character work must continue while a vocalist watches for a cue from the conductor. We can still see you.). I’m not going to blame performers for taking a gig. Performance opportunity in opera is minimal. A money making opportunity in opera is even more rare. Excuses are understandable.

It is responsibility of the creative crew to be more socially and civically conscious when casting. It’s not difficult to respect disabled people. An article with the Boston Globe or WBUR about ALS with a special consultant doesn’t cut it anymore. If a theatre can’t find a disabled performer for their work, they must either change the work or broaden the search. In this case, an opera about a female gamer is unique enough that the ALS angle could have been removed. But, I can’t critique what someone didn’t do; I can only critique what they did do. Either include us, or risk permanently ostracizing us from your audience.

In that vein, the role of MiniB is racist. MiniB is a pig avatar with a giant robot body with which he fights. Casting a Black man (the exceptionally talented Patrick Dailey who went above and beyond in this role) in a role that requires dancing while singing about eating barbecue harkens back to minstrelsy. The role is a sore thumb in an otherwise cleverly concocted libretto of interesting characters… This role could work if a white man played it it whiteface. Let a straight, white guy playing the role as an unaffected, straight, white man jump around on stage singing about succulent meat. Punch up.   

Michael Herschberg played the unfortunate role of Lemmiwinks, a character which attempts to parody the effeminate mannerisms of gay men within sports telecasting. Lemmiwinks could potentially be humorous if he was offered empowerment or autonomy within the libretto. He is instead the object of our ridicule for not adhering to toxic masculine stereotypes. Herschberg himself was wonderful and deserves wonderful things. The LGBTQIA+ community deserves better.

Gaming and female gamers should be included in more art. People of color and LGBTQIA+ deserve respectful representation. The disabled community is peopled with talented musicians ready to be hired. It is good that White Snake Projects is highlighting ALS, but their baby steps are part of a larger inclusionary practice. Good intentions do not excuse hurtful practices. PermaDeath is an incomplete opera that needs revisions in order to work as the activist art it intends to be.

Here is a handy list of resources for Arts Organizations interested in working with the disabled community. I advise any theatre interested in telling the stories of our community to please, please do their proper research before attempting a work that tells our stories. We want to be included in your art but we demand to be respected at the same time.

Mass Cultural Council
VSA Massacuchetts
NEA – National Endowment for the Arts
CANE – Cultural Access New England
Institute for Human Centered Design
New England ADA Center
CAST – Universal Design for Learning
Mass Office of Disability
Easter Seals Massachusetts
Mass Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Mass Commission for the Blind
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: LEAD Conference
Theatre Development Fund for the Performing Arts
Fact Sheet on Ticketing Regulations under ADA
Readily Achievable Barrier Removal

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