For so long, too long, “stories about the disabled or the neurodivergent have been told through the lens of neurotypical or able-bodied people, both as writers and actors ,” said Daniel Romano, an actor with autism who will appear in The Pillowman at Hedgerow Theatre Company.
Romano pointed to Dustin Hoffman as the autistic savant in the movie Rain Man and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of a man with a rare genetic disorder in the play Elephant Man.
In The Pillowman, Romano plays Michal, a character who is “slow to get things,” as he is described in the play. He may have been abused by his parents.
“Neurotypical actors who play a person with Down syndrome [or other conditions] — they are going to be able to ape the features of those disabilities,” Romano said. “But they are never going to understand what it truly means to be neurodivergent.”
As it raises questions over Michal’s alleged abuse, The Pillowman is a complicated play involving violence against children, a police state, and storytelling. Even though British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh uses hurtful words and nasty slurs to describe Romano’s character, he never gives Michal a diagnosis.
For Romano, McDonagh’s decision means, “I can take the role and not play the disability. I honor the disability as much as I can considering my background, but Michal is a person who has wants and desires. ”
Romano brings his experiences to the role. He wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 30, so he spent an anxious childhood trying to fit in.
He learned “masking,” the term used in the autistic community for behaviors that mimic what the rest of society does. Romano’s mother, for example, coached him to make eye contact with people. In some scenes in the play, Romano “unmasks” by frequently touching his face, which he describes as his own “autistic tic.”
At a time when the theater establishment has been challenged to hear and present the voices of Black, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ+ communities, The Pillowman marks a move to include voices from the disability community, including the neurodivergent.
This way, people with disabilities “can see themselves on stage rather than just as a media trope,” Romano said.
Marcie Bramucci, Hedgerow Theatre’s executive artistic director, has long been an advocate of making theater accessible, both at Hedgerow and in her previous role at People’s Light. She has said that she would like to cast more people who identify as disabled in future Hedgerow productions.
(Oct. 5-30, Hedgerow Theatre Co., 64 Rose Valley Rd., Media, 610-565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org. Hedgerow will host a “relaxed” performance and audio-described performance on Oct. 22 and open-captioned performances Oct. 19-23.)
Mona R. Washington has been at her craft for decades. The Cinnaminson-based playwright said she was deeply honored for her work to be included in the Negro Ensemble Company’s upcoming lineup of one-act plays.
“I’m so flattered that they selected my play,” said Washington, who wrote I Don’t Do That, one of three plays on tap Oct. 8. “I love the history of the NEC. It’s like theater royalty.”
Presented in two performances on one day, Our Voices, Our Time: One-Act Play Festival is the first collaboration between Penn Live Arts and NEC in the Ensembles’ yearlong residency at the University of Pennsylvania.
Created in 1964 in New York, NEC counts Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Phyllis Rashad, Richard Roundtree, and Denzel Washington among its illustrious alumni.
Karen Brown, NEC’s artistic director, said a panel of professionals read 50 plays before picking Washington’s and two others — Clipper Cut Nation by Cris Eli Blak, set in a barbershop, and What If, by Cynthia Grace Robinson, about the ramifications of activism.
What the plays have in common, Brown said, is an examination of “universal concepts.”
“We’re looking at things that address the human condition and are culturally specific,” Brown said. The ideas are universal, but the shows relate to the experiences of African Americans, Africans, and Africans in the Caribbeans. “The subject matter is relevant to promoting equality for people of the [African] diaspora.”
Washington’s play examines the relationship between Norah, an African American, and Simon, a Nigerian. The two are engaged to be married when an intimate cultural taboo comes up.
“There are myths that go both ways across the Atlantic, about what African Americans are really like and what Africans are really like,” Washington said. “The whole idea of universality and right and wrong changes from culture to culture.”
After opening at Penn, the plays head to New York for an extended off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(Oct. 8, 2 and 8 p.m., Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., Phila. 215-898-3900 or pennlivearts.org)
The Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie kicks off Arden Theatre Company’s 35th season. In the play, the matriarch, who once lived under better circumstances, worries about her adult children — particularly her daughter who has both mental and physical fragilities. Her son struggles to support them, working a mind-deadening job in a shoe warehouse. Their cramped apartment serves as a metaphor for their constricted lives.
“Williams’ exploration of memory, fragility, and the search for hope continues to resonate in such a powerful way,” Arden’s producing artistic director and the play’s director, Terrence J. Nolen, said in a statement.
(Oct. 6-Nov. 6, Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. 2d St., Phila., 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org)
Those With Two Clocks is a world premiere at the Wilma Theater that combines sketch, drag, and cabaret, and culminates with a DJ-hosted dance party — audience invited. The play delves into the role comedy plays in reinforcing patriarchal norms.
The three co-creators, all local, have plenty of Philly theater cred. Jenn Kidwell, cocreated Underground Railroad Game, which won a 2017 Obie Award for Best New American Theatre Work; Jess Conda’s work with the now-defunct theater group BRAT Productions, had an outsized influence on the Philadelphia Fringe Festival; and Mel Krodman worked on The Sincerity Project.
Wilma promises a subversive, immersive show. Ticket buyers can purchase a seat on stage.
(Oct. 6-23, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Phila., 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org)
The Strides Collective, a new company which produces theater by queer artists, presents the pigeon by its founding artistic director, Jonathan Edmondson. In the play about hidden truths and crafted lies, a bird on the fire escape, a curious roommate, and a perplexing building manager interfere with lead character Nate’s efforts to find his missing brother.
(Oct. 6-16, Strides Collective, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., Phila. stridescollective.com)
Check with individual venues for COVID protocols.