In the dawn of the Donald J. Trump era, when many communities (queer, disability, people of color, feminist, Jewish and Muslim) feel gobsmacked — fearful of bigotry and anxious about their safety — art is needed more than ever.
Open Circle Theatre’s mesmerizing production of “The Who’s Tommy” at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre through Nov. 20 is a stunning testament to the power of art to entertain, provoke and console. “Tommy,” the beloved 1970s rock opera (with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend and book by Townshend and Des McAnuff), based on The Who’s 1969 concept album (of the same name) is iconic. Who didn’t love its story of the deaf, blind and “dumb” boy who’s not only a pinball wizard, but whose disabilities are “cured?” Me.
Though I loved its music and fab rock aura, until I saw OCT’s production, I’d resisted the lure of “Tommy’s” story. Why was I — someone who is visually impaired and a lesbian who came of age in the 1970s — troubled by “Tommy’s” plot? Because Tommy’s disabilities were seen as metaphors for trauma (which needed to be “cured.”). As a queer crip, empowered by the emerging gay and disability rights movements, I didn’t view my disability (or sexuality) as a metaphor or as something to be cured. I viewed it as a profound part of who I am.
From the original concept album to the recent Broadway version of the show “the actual experience of disability was never considered to be a part of the show’s message,” Suzanne Richard writes in the Director’s Note for the Open Circle Theatre production of “The Who’s Tommy.”
Pete Townshend used Tommy’s disabilities as a metaphor for the abuse that he experienced as a child and “his eventual struggle to find balance as a rock superstar,” said Richard, co-founder and artistic director of OCT. “As I listened to it as a person who has lived with a disability my entire life, I began to wonder: What does it mean to be cured? Who gets to decide what is healthy or ‘normal?’”
Founded in 2003, Open Circle Theatre is, its mission statement says, “dedicated to mounting professional theatre productions that showcase and integrate the considerable talents” of disabled and non-disabled actors.
In OCT’s vibrant version of “Tommy,” the metaphor, as Richard aptly says, “strikes back.” In OCT’s production, several actors play Tommy – at different ages – as hearing and deaf. American Sign Language is an integral part of the show. Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who’s appeared on Broadway in the revival of “Spring Awakening” and in the film “There Will Be Blood,” luminously plays the primary Tommy. Tommy is molested by Uncle Ernie and bullied by Cousin Kevin. Yet, Tommy recovers from the abuse and bullying and discovers himself. Check out the YouTube videos of Russell signing “Pinball Wizard” and other songs.
Seeing “Tommy,” I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between having a disability and being queer. “I do see…parallels between the Deaf community and the queer community,” Harvard, who is queer, said in an email to me. “Both communities have undergone…procedures that offer false hopes of curing the issue (conversion therapies and cochlear implants), when…in the end the issues never really are cured, but embraced.”
Harvard knew he was queer when he was about six years old. “I lived in fear as my father told me I was going to hell. I prayed so constantly to help me change who I am. Finally, I told myself to stop wasting time on praying and start happily living my life,” he said.
Tommy isn’t queer. But, as the age of Trump begins, Tommy’s experience with bullying hits close to home. “I’m disabled and LGBT. I’ve been bullied all my life,” Isadora Clemente Zurie, 21, told the Associated Press at a recent protest in Salt Lake City against Trump’s election.
Great art trumps bullying. Check-out “Tommy.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.