“Who decides what a good trait is? Who benefits?....The way we are is just fine.”, related actress Seely Quest, in her Sins Invalid monologue as Carrie Buck, the first woman to be sterilized in the state of Virginia on October 19, 1927, because she had a cognitive disability and physicians and administrators of the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded felt she had ‘undesirable traits’ and therefore that no one else should be born 'defective' as she was thought to be by the eugenics board. Yes, these things happened in our country and sometimes still do.
'Knotting Stories Over Time and Geography' was the theme for the Fifth Annual Sins Invalid performance I attended in April 2011. The evening interweaved the history and story of eugenics throughout the performances of transgendered, lesbian, and bi artists, many of whom have been with Sins Invalid since its inception by Patty Berne, Leroy F. Moore, Jr. and Todd Herman. Sins Invalid is a performance project which features artists with disabilities, artists of color, as well as queer and gender variant artists who historically have been marginalized by society. The performances are inspired expressions of owning sexuality on one’s own terms, where what is considered “normal” and “sexy” is challenged to present a vision of beauty and sexuality that welcomes all individuals and communities.
This was my second time attending Sins, the first time being in 2009 and Sins certainly didn't disappoint. The evening started out with Come You, a poem spoken by Aurora Levins Morales which was beautifully interpreted through dance by Antoine Hunter, a Deaf/Hard of Hearing dancer, choreographer, dance instructor, actor, model and poet. Antoine's dancing pulls in all of your senses when watching him.
In the darkened theater, we saw the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." which set up the story of Carrie Buck, whom Seely Quest portrayed. Quest dressed the part in the fashion of 1927 and spoke in a Virginia drawl, telling about how she ended up at the Colony because she wasn’t right and because she was pregnant after she was sexually assaulted.
“She was alone and she was scared.” Patty Berne began, weaving the story of another film clip about Jennifer Daughtery, a 30 year old woman with mental illness, who was killed and tortured by 6 people in 2010, whom she thought were her “friends”. When the police found her, her body was wrapped in Christmas lights. While Patty is relating this story, the woman’s face on the screen goes through different emotions: pleasure, laughter, and what looks like pain. Of all the pieces of the night, this one had me crying, crying because I recalled the group homes I had worked in with people with cognitive disabilities and deafness, where some of the females in the home had been sterilized against their will prior to living in the group home. Why do crimes against people with disabilities continue to get a mere mention in the back sections of newspapers, as if it was an afterthought?
Maria Palacios, also known in poetry and theater circles as the Goddess on Wheels, followed with her provocative poem, “Undressing Love”. In her wheelchair, Maria casts her poetic spell on everyone in the theater, as she often does. The poem her story of how she would direct lovers to focus on her breasts rather than her legs, thighs and knees (which she never shows) explaining that “some truths are meant to stay personal”. However, during the second half of the show, Maria did a striptease during “Peep Show” where she did reveal her legs.
During the evening, we followed the courtship of two women, characters portrayed by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ellery Russian in the performances of Taco Time (a first date going through a drive-through at Taco Time so that they wouldn’t have to walk). Then, ‘Pen Pals’ began, an erotic letter dedicated to singer-songwriter and disabled artist, Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide in 2009. ‘Melanin Night Sky’ was performed, speaking of the fear of finding another melanoma and what this meant for the couple. ‘Cancel’ was a humorous, tongue in cheek piece which talked about how many times one character cancelled dates with another character because of body pain. Other vignettes unfolded before the audience, each with emotional and visceral tension, yet tender.
There was lots of dance from Antoine Hunter in “Let the Circle Grow” and “Let Your Body Speak” and Aurora Levins Morales was the vocal performer for each of Antoine’s dances. I could not take my eyes off of him as he expressed so many emotions of the poems spoken through his movements.
Aurora Levins Morales took the stage wearing nothing but white and speaking of the experience of regaining feeling inside and outside of her body with “Stroke”. She recounted the difficulty it took just to move fingers, hands, feet and legs following her stroke and how frustrated she was that after the stroke, nothing was addressed about sexuality, feeling the sensations and how she had to relearn what made her feel good on her own. “Breathless” was a stunning vision with Alex Cafarelli dressed in a bustier and pants, performing Bagua Zhang, a form of martial arts, telling the panic of having another asthma attack and struggling in the dark to find her inhaler and what it is like to lose your breath.
The evening not only discussed sexuality head on, but was a political statement like “God Wrestling,” performed by Nomy Lamm and Alex Cafarelli. It was a poetic commentary on the state of Palestinians in Israel, showing both Nomy and Alex as two mustached women wrestlers rolling around on the floor and proclaiming “Dayenu” which is Jewish for “enough”. After round one, Lamm shouted “Dayenu” and removed her prosthetic leg, which lay in the background as these women wrestled. Lamm’s voice came over the speaker and proclaimed, “Why must I deal with oppression?” The performance showed solidarity in understanding the struggle of being oppressed in your own country while also living with a disability.
The evening ended with the haunting music and voice of Nomy Lamm performing her song “Belly Up” with two different puppets, a bird and a snail, with Nomy dressed as a mermaid. She mesmerized me both visually and melodically.
Although I’ve given you a taste of what an evening with Sins Invalid is like, there truly are not enough words to describe it, you have to be there to feel the electricity, to be surrounded by the message that sexuality is for everyone and about how to love your body the way it is, embrace it, and enjoy it.
To learn more about Sins Invalid and find a show near you, go to the website at http://www.sinsinvalid.org/.