A Ceremony of Cripdom:
A Review of Birthing Dying Becoming Crip Wisdom by Sins Invalid
(October 15, ODC Theater, San Francisco)
Sins Invalid is something rare: A performance project that centers queer disabled people of color, holds a commitment to social justice, and expresses a spectrum of crip sexuality. The name, according to co-founder Patty Berne, “references ‘invalid,’ which is what we’re often referred to. That’s just inane, it doesn’t apply to any human. The name also plays on the idea of ‘sin’—meaning ‘without’—so, without the concept of the invalid. It’s also a play on words in terms of our bodies, or the act of embodiment somehow being original sin, or a problem to overcome.” Birthing Dying Becoming Crip Wisdom, the most recent offering from Sins Invalid, presents a dreamspace, a ceremonial embodiment of the life cycle. It reflects the deaths of parents and beloved friends of the ensemble, and their own aging disabled bodies which insist on being seen and heard and felt, as they resist, confirm, and ultimately transform concepts of old age and disability.
The performance begins with a drummed invocation to the Orisha Legba, who in Voudoun and other Yoruba-based cosmologies brings about communication with ancestors and the other Orishas. Traditionally Legba uses a cane, but there was no expression of his cripdom. This omission is a missed opportunity.
Drummed prayers to the Orisha Obatala, creator of human beings, flow into the piece “Obatala Blessing/Obatala Opens” danced by Lateef McLeod and Sean Shelly with voiceover by Baba Afolabi. In other pieces Lateef uses a rolling walker as mobility aid. In this piece Sean walks behind him, tenderly supporting him as they dance about and on the floor.
“Obatala’s Blessing” proclaims that crips, with our divergent bodyminds, are fashioned in perfection. We are not mistakes. Like two-spirit/non-binary individuals in cultures which recognize them as necessary to the wholeness of the community, we, too, are essential.
“Bringing It Black” (written by Neve Be(ast) and Malcolm Shanks, voiced by Malcolm, danced by Neve and Antoine Hunter) reminds us of the stark reality that “we cannot take for granted the birthing of Black and Brown bodies.” But it affirms in the face of oppression:
I was searching for beauty and named myself so….
I am meant to love a world more precisely than it had ever been loved…...
I exist as a refrain.
The ableist world intrudes with callous questions. ”Were you born like that?” Countless disabled people have been wounded by this question. But Sins asks with loving curiosity, with awe,
Do you find yourself inside your edges?
How did you first understand your name?
Who are your people? Were they there at your birth?
This is the bending dreamworld Sins has created, in which the peculiar, the divergent, the queer are revered.
Todd Herman’s silent video “When I Stop Looking” slowly pans across faces changed by burns, variant in pigmentation. Faces with atypical variations on two eyes, one nose with two nostrils, one mouth. Faces touched, kissed, explored, desired, known. Watching, we inhabit the dream of loving curiosity.
The first half concludes with “Rooted,” by Deaf choreographer Antoine Hunter and Deaf dancers Zahne Simon and Leah Mendelsohn who perform before a backdrop image of a redwood. The lights go blue to a recording of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” The metaphor of rootedness shows the power of connection to both ancestors and the present through Deaf community.
Sins Invalid’s access accommodations are far beyond what most events provide, including events in disabled communities. There are provisions for scent sensitive, wheelchair using, neurodivergent (a low-stim room to chill in), and Deaf audience members. The description of access in the pre-performance publicity was helpful and accurate. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
Members of the ensemble participate in different ways, through videos, soundscapes, some without being physically present. Because Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has “cognitive differences that make memorizing a 7 page piece difficult” (Disability Remix Blog) unlike the other actors she uses a script.
Ironically, the inadequate access is to information about the performance. Birthing Dying Becoming Crip Wisdom uses a framework of Yoruba-based beliefs but this isn’t made clear in the program, which never acknowledges or names the drummers, essential to summoning the Orishas. Nor does the program let the audience know who created and performed which piece. One of the reasons for Sins’ existence is to “incubate and celebrate artists with disabilities," according to the mission statement on their website. A program which lists the pieces, the authors, and all the performers would greatly advance that mission.
The second half begins with Neve’s piece “Welcome Back to Life” combining dance, projected images, and spoken word voiced, offstage. This piece is a precious gift to the disabled audience, a love poem whose “vibrational hinged tongue” celebrates:
the wild place that is our bodies…...
We are complex, iridescent, splendid people.
And yeah, we want you here.
That wildness develops in the song “Primordial” performed by the many-worldly vocalist Nomy Lamm. Magnificent lighting enhances Nomy’s crimson garment, provided by Hamilton Guillen and Cubacub/Rebirth Garments. Evoking the Red Sea, it flows out toward the wheelchair-reserved front section of the audience while India Harville and Neve crawl under Nomy’s skirts. Throughout the evening, dancers often move from their wheelchairs to the floor, overturning the phrase: “confined to a wheelchair.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha takes the stage with “Crip Magic Spells,” another profound welcome, this time to “beautiful baby crip.”
We’re waiting for you….
We’ve already survived the worst things in the world…..
Asking for help is the thing everything else rests on…...
There is no such thing as too disabled to live.
While these words are healing and aspirational they are not of course the whole story. Maria R. Polacios reports in “Midlife Crip Reflections:”
aging as a crip,
sometimes, feels like my body is aging faster
almost with a vengeance
as if claiming revenge
for all the years of forcing my arms
to also be legs and pushing my body
until it ran out of gas,
and even then forced it to keep going.
In “Crip Magic Spells #2” Leah tells the new member of the crip community what to expect from the abled world:
They will forget (about your disability) and they will think they’re doing you a favor
They’ll think you’re in a wheelchair AT them.
Leah’s “All the Femmes Come Back” is a raging grief at the suicides of many disabled femmes of color in her world, and the suicidality of many more, including herself. Trying to witch them back, she proclaims:
I don’t need any more ancestors. I’ve got plenty…...
I choose life as spiteful revenge.
I could feel the audience weeping throughout this piece, which I hope will soon be in print.
Nomy sings/prays “Stay Open” which includes the Hebrew phrase Lulei Hemanti (‘If only I could hope/Only because I hope’) from Psalm 27. As the song progresses she reveals more of her lusciously fat crip body and at the end drops her covering cloth to reveal herself naked and amputated, with a quick fade to black. I believe she is challenging the audience to question our discomfort with the combination of striptease and prayer. That said, this piece would have worked better for me if she had used the cloth to steadily adorn and reveal herself, having the body parts and absences which convention censors openly and lingeringly displayed.
Neve, in “If and When We Die,” speaks of a time “when you marry that creature named death.” They tell of “Disabled people who tried everything. Or nothing at all.” And Neve wishes us this:
I hope you will have loved other people…
A beautiful way to die.
A wonderful way to have lived.
The night ends with more prayers to Legba, with the entire cast on stage. We, the audience, showered them with love.