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Posted by Philip Patston on 18 December 2009, 11:38 am in , , , , ,

Not funny: Non-disabled actor playing a disabled person for laughs

I received the following email from Tanya at Attitude TV and thought I'd share it and my reply. I'm interested in what others think so leave a comment, please.

Tanya writes:

I went to a performance of ‘The Sexy Recession’ last night at TAPAC in Auckland.  A cabaret/burlesque/skit comedy show with some outstanding, some average and one very disturbing performance.  A young man came out, moving amongst the tables in an electric wheelchair, signing (badly) amongst other things, about how his mind is willing but his body’s not able, hard to explain but a kind of Barry Whitesque croon with sexual innuendos...When I fist saw him I thought great, someone else in the show with a disability, then I was thinking it’s kind of in poor taste, then I realised he wasn’t actually disabled but he was making fun of being disabled and I was totally gob-smacked.

I’ve recently been to New York where I met with people from the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and representatives from a tri-union (SAG, AFTRA and AEA) initiative to increase the visibility and employment opportunities for performers with a disability.  It is also about accurate portrayal; aware that society’s views are influenced by the arts and media, they feel that too often people with disabilities serve as an object of derision or pity.

Anyway America and Hollywood have a long, long way to go.   I couldn’t help thinking about the work they’re doing and the similar efforts made here in New Zealand to offer alternative perceptions and how backward this performance seemed...

I’m wondering if there is a difference between this and ‘black face’ minstrel performance that made being Black an object of derision and humour?

I’m especially interested in your thoughts as a comedian/performer and social commentator, I’m sure you and the people you connect with have had several interesting debates around this topic.  Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive...?

Interestingly I was with four other woman in wheelchairs and a couple of people approached us to ask what we thought because they’d felt it was in bad taste...

My reply:

I think the performer, production company and venue need feedback that the piece was offensive, in poor taste and of poor quality, and I would encourage you all to do the same so that it is given more weight by numbers. The problem with going further (ie. if you say certain portrayals "shouldn't be allowed") is that you get into the realm of censorship and that's something that I've had to reconcile as a performer who has had to share the stage with people with whose material I have fundamentally disagreed. But it's a slippery slope when you start making judgments about what should or shouldn't be performed.

I'd need to check my facts but I think the likes of performances like black and white minstrels diminished due to audience intolerance more than rights-based directives. When the audience won't tolerate it, a performer has no choice but to re-evaluate their performance if they want to keep the audience.