I’ve been shaking my head over the press for Rachel Axler’s new hipster-ableist play, Smudge. Here’s a lightning tour, with my response
s at the end. Emphases are mine.
In ‘Smudge,’ Baby’s disabled, and mom’s not much better, from Newsday:
Most couples look at the sonogram of their impending baby to see whether it’s a boy or a girl. But when Colby and her husband, Nick, scrutinize the picture of the life in her womb for an answer to the “what is it?” question, they are appalled to realize that they mean it. Literally.
Rachel Axler’s “Smudge,” the very dark 90-minute comedy at the Women’s Project, aims to be part horror movie, part domestic relationship drama. Their baby, a girl, arrives unbearably deformed, with no limbs and one big eye. Nick (Greg Keller) bonds with the unseen character in the pram encircled with tubes, and names her Cassandra. Colby (Cassie Beck, in another of her achingly honest performances) attempts to protect herself from the agony through brutal humor, maniacally snipping the arms off baby clothes and taunting the “smudge” until “it” miraculously responds. Or does it? […]
BOTTOM LINE The unthinkable, faced with wit but not enough depth
More, from Variety:
Title comes from the first word that comes to mind when Colby (Cassie Beck) gets a glimpse of her infant daughter, grotesquely described as having no arms or legs, an undeveloped skeletal structure and only one (beautiful, luminous blue-green) eye in her misshapen head.
More, from Time Out New York:
She is nearly indescribably deformed: a purple-grey mass of flesh and hair, with a single, disconcertingly beautiful Caribbean Sea–colored eye. Her horrified mother, Colby (Beck), describes the child as looking “Sort of like a jellyfish. Sort of like something that’s been erased.”
More, from SF Examiner:
The subject matter isn’t for the fainthearted: A young couple has an extremely deformed baby[…]
The baby, whose name, “Cassandra,” was chosen before she was born, is described somewhat, but never seen by the audience. She lives in a softly beeping superpram that is laden with lights and colorful tubes containing various IV drips that sustain her. […]
[Colby] cuts the sleeves and legs off all the pink and white onesies, saying, “It doesn’t have limbs, it doesn’t need sleeves,” and secretly uses the fabric to make a stuffed toy she calls “Mister Limbs.” When she finally approaches the pram, she waves Mister Limbs and seemingly taunts Cassie with it, saying, “He has everything you don’t.”
More, from NY Theatre:
[…] And she has an appendage that Colby calls a tail at one point and a possible penis at another. The “smudge” has no limbs and can only live by being hooked up to a bunch of feeding tubes.
More, from NY Daily News:
[Nick] hovers, consumed by “Cassio” even at work as a census taker. “Living is binary,” he says. “Zero or one. Black or white. You’ve got two choices — alive or dead. This is my daughter. She’s the gray area. Which would you choose? Zero or one?”[…]
How parents cope under these nightmarish circumstances is a provocative topic.
More, from NY Post:
Baby, you’re the beast
Colby and Nick’s new baby girl isn’t very nice — or very normal, either.
“There’s jealousy in its eye as it counts my hands, finds itself lacking,” Colby (Cassie Beck) says with a mix of fear and anger. No wonder: The deformed Cassandra is more of a blob than a baby. […] [Colby] refers to Cassandra as an “it” rather than a “she,” and when she finally deigns to use that pronoun, it’s with contemptuous air quotes.
More, from the New York Times:
And One-Eyed Offspring Makes Three
Parenthood never looked weirder or more terrifying than it does in “Smudge,” a new play by Rachel Axler at the Julia Miles Theater. Here are some of the things that Colby, a new mother, calls the thing she gave birth to: it, creature, hot dog, freak, smudge, a bunch of entrails in casing.
Her husband, Nick (Greg Keller), prefers to use a name, Cassandra, and to wax poetic about her one eye. But Colby (Cassie Beck) isn’t convinced the thing is even a girl. How, she wonders, can “something with a penis” be a girl? Nick: “That’s her leg.” […]
What gives the play its charge is how Ms. Axler taps into a primal fear — giving birth to a monster — and then calmly considers it from all angles.
How does Axler explain her motivation for this play?
Inspired by the most horrible thought she ever had, the play follows a young couple that gives birth to, well, a smudge. […]
And then a year or two later, it was my final year of grad school, and the shuttle that took me to UCSD was right by the ambulatory center. And a woman in a wheelchair was coming toward me and I thought it was a child. And as she got closer, I realized this was actually a grown woman, sort of a half-formed woman, like very little of a body that I could see, and her face was very blank and she looked straight at me. And that horrible thought was, Oh my god, nobody’s ever going to love that person. Which was immediately overwritten by, God, no, this person probably has a family. She might have a boyfriend. She might have a girlfriend. She probably has a perfectly functioning life. And I thought about that article, and I thought, Oh my God, I just sort of nonchalantly took the very privileged and callous point of view. And I was like, “Wait a second, that’s what I have to write about.”
The smudge is really this abstract concept. How did you figure out how to translate that to the stage with lights and sounds?
It’s funny, when I write, I hear it way more than I see it. So in the script there’s a lot of parentheticals, like “beeps, flickering,” and then sometimes it was “violent beeps,” “angry beeps,” “the tubes glow,” or “the tubes glow ominously” or “the tubes glow faintly.” So I’m working with designers to create this thing that can be anthropomorphized.
You see what she did there? She had a half-glimmer of recognition that maybe thinking about fellow humans as “half-formed” and “blank” and unlovable was, perhaps, a little bit wrong. A little bit privileged. An oopsie slip-o’-t’-brain.
So she wrote about a person with a disability as completely non-human. She depicted a person with a disability as an unseen, grotesque, unthinkably defective creature, unsuited for the eyes of the real humans. She painted a picture of a person with a disability as something out of view, only interacting with the real humans via tubes and wires. She resolved that parents who have children with disabilities must be going through the worst imaginable human experience. Horrific. Gruesome. Inconceivable.
She released this play on the world as her supposedly ground-breaking way of “examining” the issue, her journey to self-discovery and personal thinkythoughts. As if the idea of people with disabilities as being monsters is something new. As if the idea of people with disabilities as being non-human is fresh. And she slipped in a whole pile of hipster-ableist yuks, just to pretend that oh, no, she doesn’t really think that way. And nor do others, do they? They’re just all laughing at the idea that actual 21st-century people would ever think that way! Hahaha! And critics can handily be slapped down with “Can’t you take a joke?” “It’s DARK comedy.” Well, ain’t that just convenient?
My response to this steaming pile of hate has largely been nothing more than “……WUT.”
So here’s a go at bullet points:
1. People with disabilities are people.
2. Children with disabilities aren’t your go-to for horror metaphors. No, not as metaphors for postpartum depression either. See point one.
3. Having a child with a disability isn’t an “unthinkable” “nightmarish” experience with a “monster”. See point one.
4. Playing with degenderisation and total dehumanisation isn’t the path to disability rights acceptance. See point one.
5. No, not even if you call it “black comedy”.
6. Wannabe allies should sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen, if this is the shit going through their heads while they figure out whether or not PWD are people. See point one. Read it again.
If this is all you can come up with when confronted with the concept of disability, keep it to your own self while you work on it. Not every hateful, disgusting thought that goes through your head needs to be said out loud.
7. This is why our people are killed. This is how our people are killed. Stop it.