By Alicia Simba
In one of the most painfully beautiful moments of “Access|Ability”, a young brunette stands on a dark and empty stage and lists the victims of police brutality in a poem, one by one. “On Considering Suicide,” written by Krish Bhatt and read by Viviana Prado-Nunez, is a critique of a society that accuses suicidal people of color for not caring for those around them, whilst actively denying them that very same care. Viviana, a half-Cuban, half-Puerto Rican, freshman from Maryland, starts with the accusatory statement, “You say suicide is selfish.” She then names Jesse Hernandez, Keith Lamont Scott, Sandra Bland, and more before shouting “they’re already trying to kill us, coward, why would you kill yourself?” The scene is jarring, provocative, and emotional – all words that could be used to describe the overall production.
The beauty of Access|Ability lies in its honesty. It reflects our perceptions of mental and physical illnesses back to us, shocking and comforting us in it’s accuracy. “We tricked y’all,” says director Nadia Naomi Mbonde. “A lot [the audience] came in saying this is not going to relate to me, and by bringing people in to the internal part of disabilities – like the emotions underlining the fear, the fear, the anxiety, the depression—they were able to recognize, “Hey, that’s like me too.””
In 1996, playwright Eve Ensler penned her iconic “Vagina Monlogues” that dealt with themes like sex, masturbation, and rape, to name a few. Ensler then launched V-Day, a global activist movement that used theatre as a way of combatting violence against women and girls. Columbia University has been holding its own V-Day performances from as early as 2011, but it’s evolution since then has resulted in ample criticism. In 2014, it was announced that the production’s cast would be comprised solely of self-identified women of colour and inevitability, backlash followed. The following year, instead of retelling “The Vagina Monologues,” a new show was created, centering the experiences of LGBTQ students at Barnard and Columbia, entitled “Beyond Cis-terhood.” Last year, they expanded again to highlight the experiences of ableism, mental and physical disabilities, and illnesses on campus in “Respect(ability)”. As an actor in last year’s production, Nadia noticed that something was wrong.
“I found myself to be the only black cast member,” she recalls. “The pieces were submitted by mostly white students or white passing students.” After speaking to the directors, Nadia wrote her story in a piece that would later open “Respect(ability)” in which she stated bluntly, “I cannot speak for all black people with a mental health illness.”
On a campus where minorities are routinely marginalized, the non-monolithic nature of the experiences of people of colour are rarely discussed, and Nadia’s statement is a particularly poignant one. In fighting for the needs of the collective “us,” our unique experiences are rarely given space, and “Access|Ability” provided some of that diversity.
The first step was getting the stories. It started with a free-write session, followed by a free studio session, where she met her assistant director (and right-hand) Ruguru Karira, a sophomore at Columbia College. They followed that with “Pendulum,” an exhibition on manic and depressive episodes that took place in the fall of 2016. After collecting those submissions, the writers got together to make a collective, and General Studies senior, Daniela Dos Santos was a part of that team.
Given the brevity of her dual BA program with Sciences-Po and Columbia, Daniela joined V-Day for the opportunity to do something creative in her final year. Her piece, “The Creature,” was a favorite due to its familiarity through its reflection of life at Columbia. “Unlike the city, you wish you could get some sleep,” narrates an unseen voice, as the small, wide-eyed, curly-haired Eddie Ojo mutely acts out the physical manifestation of the overhead thoughts. “It’s 7 am. The city is alive, but you aren’t,” the voice continues, as the character grows more and more manic and weary, paralyzed by thoughts of depression. The scene ends in sobs and a scream.
“The Creature” took some advantage of the multimedia nature of the show, utilizing acting and overhead audio, but “Access|Ability” as a whole included dance numbers, musical tracks, video projection, and all with a specific purpose. “I wanted it to be a multimedia, multisensory experience because people of colour don’t often have words, or diagnosis, or any tangible means of describing what they’re going through,” explains Nadia. As an audience member, the different mediums give voices to the often unspoken and unheard experiences of those battling with disabilities as people of colour.
Another crucial component of the production was its community-style creative process. Daniella reveals, “I’ve never been a writer going in to a room and seeing actors interpret the text,” and writers and actors interacted constantly at every part leading up to it’s final days, effectively displaying the experiences of those who penned them, adding to their accuracy.
The show did not come without its challenges though. The first being the dominance of black narratives over other POC identities. “I get very frustrated with POC spaces that are mostly black or specifically African-American,” admits Nadia. “I really wanted to draw out people’s specific identities, and within blackness, there is Africanness, Caribbeanness, Creoleness, there is so much.” They achieved the latter remarkably, evidenced through Nadia herself describing herself as Punjabi Indian, Tanzanian, and Afro-Guyanese and Daniella being having an Angolan/Portugese background. However, the show was still majority black, and they wished they could have gotten more Latinx and Muslim voices, amongst many other demographics. Nevertheless, a mélange of other POC identities was present on stage and this inclusion was intentional – a salient lesson to the predominantly-white theatrical productions that take place at Columbia that make little efforts in racial diversification.
An interesting issue that came up during the talk back on the second night was the inclusion of cisgendered men. Although the production team had a mix of different gender identities, they were asked about the presence of cast members Donovan Redd and Chengkai Hu. Their first explanation was that they received a lot of submission from men who had little avenue to talk about their struggles with mental health. Specifically, in regards to blackness, Nadia adds, “How can we talk about black women being tired if we don’t talk about black men and how they step over women?” Daniella points out again how a significant amount of men are suicide victims but “they just don’t talk about it,” and so telling their stories too was necessary.
Finally, getting support from the community was a real frustration. “Respect(Ability)” sold out a week in advance, “Access|Ability” just minutes before. One possible hypothesis was a lack of respect for non-white art gets, demonstrated potentially by the many students of colour who believed that they could just “walk in” to a project that took months to create. “Working with the community when you’re doing community-based work,” reflects Nadia, “and getting them to the theatre, and getting them to open up, by just sitting in the chair to watch the performance, was a challenge.” Daniella ponders further on the how the majority-white audiences navigated the show. “Are they just watching it as art and just something that they’re gonna watch and then sleep? Or are they going to integrate it in their understanding,” she asks.
So, where do we go from here? Viviana wants students on campus who have perhaps become desensitized to mental health tragedies and dialogues to be more aware of the people around them. She challenges us to “remember and pay attention” to going ons in our communities, to better support one another. Nadia echoes that sentiment, pushing everyone on campus to do more and to explore the topics brought up in “Access|Ability.” “This was for y’all,” she laughs. “We did the work, now we need the community to support.” Taking it in, Daniella wonders, “We’re inscribed in such a tradition now, I hope it will last.” The onus, it seems, is on us.