Temple’s ‘Fierce’ new play shines new light on the developmentally disabled

    Actor and advocate Shawn Aleong embraces playwritght Suli Holum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Actor and advocate Shawn Aleong embraces playwritght Suli Holum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Pennsylvania’s intellectual disabilities rights movement is a work in progress. The struggle that began more than 60 years ago is about respect, independence, and services, all of which are being fought for today.

    A new play called “A Fierce Kind of Love” brings the history of this movement to life — highlighting the challenges and successes of parents, their children, and others. Its cast includes men and women with intellectual disabilities.

    “We have arrived at a moment when an inclusive theatrical event is happening that wouldn’t be happening without the history of the disabilities rights movement,” playwright Suli Holum said about the play, which opens tonight at the Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. “Live theatre is always an event that is happening in real time that could only be happening with the people who are there in our audience.

    “The performers acknowledge the audience’s presence and are saying this wouldn’t be happening without you,” she added. The play, which was written by Holum and is directed by David Bradley, features actors with intellectual disabilities telling their own personal stories as well as playing the role of important figures in the movement.

    “How can we call ourselves a great nation if we don’t include all people,” said Shawn Aleong, one of the actors in the play and an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Aleong, along with playing himself, plays the role of disabilities rights advocate Roland Johnson who was integral in in the movement. Johnson, who died in 1994, was present when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

    The play is a combination of monologues, spoken word, and songs focusing on the history of the movement, which was an arduous task for Holum as she sought to bring everything together.

    “It took a long time to figure out how to make this broad history accessible to the widest possible audience,” Holum said. “What I discovered over time is that the best thing to do was to let our ensemble lead me into what material was going to be the most resonant.

    “I discovered that the real power of this event,” she continued, “is the opportunity to spend time with cast members — both the typical members of the cast and those with intellectual disabilities — because their engagement with this story and their engagement with each other is actively modeling what I hope this experience will be.”

    One of the focal points of the play is when the cast begins to discuss the history of the movement and addresses the word “retarded,” which for decades was used as the official designation for the intellectually disabled and was commonly used as a pejorative term. In 2010, Congress officially had the word removed from all legislation.

    The play addresses the word in its historical context while decrying its usage.

    “In 2016, we don’t use that word,” Aleong said. “That word has such a negative connotation. Back in the day, that’s how they used to talk, but today, we don’t want to be defined by that.”

    For more of Jennifer Lynn’s interview on “A Fierce Kind of Love,” including how Shawn Aleong draws his inspiration, press play at the top of the page.

    Read Susan Richardson’s interview with director David Bradley at ‘Human at Work.’

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