A great diversity experience – Theater Breaking Through Barriers

Two of the actors featured in “The Artificial Jungle,” David Harrell and Anita Hollander

NOTE: The play featured in this blog runs through July 1st at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. Link to Theater Breaking Through Barriers for information and tickets.

In early June, my mother and I took a quick weekend trip to New York City so she could have a reunion with her best friend from college from the early 1950s. Since that was planned for Sunday, I arranged for us to see an off-Broadway play on Saturday afternoon, Charles Ludlam’s “The Artificial Jungle” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

The play was a combination comedy and thriller featuring only five characters. Nerdy Chester, his attractive over-sexed wife Roxanne and his doting mother all live together and run a pet shop in New York City selling exotic animals. They are looking for some additional help with the store and hire sexy mysterious Zach. Zach and Roxanne have an affair and then plot to kill off Chester by throwing him into the piranha tank. The 5th character is Chester’s best friend Frankie, a good hearted but somewhat incompetent policeman. Do read this fascinating synopsis and review from the NY Times from when the play first ran in 1986.

Anthony Michael Lopez (Zach) and Alyssa H. Chase (Roxanne) plotting Chester’s demise in “The Artificial Jungle”. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What is special about this current production? Theater Breaking Through Barriers features actors with a wide range of disabilities. David Harrell (link), who plays leading man Chester, is an actor, speaker and disability advocate with one hand. And Anita Hollander (link), who plays Chester’s mother is a long time actress, singer, lyricist, producer and teacher who lost a leg due to cancer. Both actor and actress were marvelous in their respectful roles. In addition Anthony Michael Lopez (link), who portrays Zach was born with a leg defect, and other articles about the cast say that one of the five actors is also legally blind, though all my google searching could not help me identify who.

As a diversity consultant (deep expertise in LGBT, but half my clients engage me for all areas of diversity and inclusion,) I do take away two lessons from this production:

First, that differently-abled people are fully capable of handling the same tasks and taking on the same responsibilities as people without disabilities, and may perform just as well or better. This is a very important message for the business world where often unconscious bias could lead us to prejudge people with disabilities as less capable. During the play, the acting, directing and story were so good, the disabilities of the cast were non-apparent.

Second, the world of entertainment should use more “imperfect” people in roles. So often shows, movies and plays have the most beautiful flawless people on stage. Naturally in entertainment, we like to get lost in the fantasy of gorgeous people in a glamorous story, but it is also nice to experience entertainment that much more parallels real life.

I do thank Theater Breaking Through Barriers and the Clurman Theatre helping my mother and me have a great weekend in New York, and I am pleased to also make a charitable contribution to TBTB through my business. And if you are in or going to New York, do go see “The Artificial Jungle!” Link for info and tickets. And do pay close attention to the piranhas in the tank.

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