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    Will Dagger and Jamie Brewer star in Will Arbery's Corsicana

    Not Special: Down Syndrome in Will Arbery’s Corsicana

    Arbery draws attention to Down syndrome in order to draw attention away from it. The plea is not for special treatment, but for normal treatment.

    By Justin R. Hawkins

    August 4, 2022
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    • James

      Justin, You were there, and you have much more experience than I do from which to draw your interpretation of the audience's attitude, both when it laughed and, later, when it didn't. But I wondered as I read if there wasn't something else going on. A great deal of laughter has been evoked by unanticipated wisdom from the lips of babes, and delight at the unexpected touché of the strong by the weak. And the expression not just of wisdom, but of goodness, where it's not usually presented brings first surprise then, as it settles in, a welcome peace. So I wondered if Will Arbery hadn't so much catechized as given hope. Thank you for taking us with you!

    • Kathleen Licoppe

      Beautiful commentary. The ending made me cry. I volunteered for years with L’Arche while at university. Then when my sons were teens we volunteered as a family. This okay is so needed.

    In interviews since the premiere of Corsicana, his most recent play, Will Arbery has insisted that his play is not about anything in particular; in his words, it “stubbornly defies aboutness.” One could read this claim as denying the play’s meaningfulness or its reducibility down to one coherent plotline. But it seems to me that another interpretation is possible – that Corsicana attempts to capture a snapshot of quotidian life in all its banality, to hold up daily life for investigation, to say that life need not be special to be a worthy object of contemplation.

    Corsicana is set in the not-special town of Corsicana, Texas, a real town interchangeable with any number of others one might accidentally find oneself in while pulling off the highway in search of a gas station bathroom. Arbery tells us in the show notes that he once spent a month-long writer’s residency in Corsicana watching YouTube, ordering Domino’s pizza – doing anything other than writing. Nothing, not even playwriting, takes place in Corsicana.

    The play’s characters are four not-special denizens of that town. Lot is a sculpture artist who collects scrap metal for his art. Arbery’s inspiration for the character is a real Corsicanan artist about whom Oxford American once published a story, wherein his vocation is described as revealing the “beauty resident in junk.” Justice is a trailer park mystic with a brain as full of philosophical soliloquies as her Styrofoam Sonic cup is full of Sprite. Christopher is the early-30s failson, shoulders slumped both from depression and from the weight of newly acquired familial responsibility in the wake of his mother’s death. Ginny, Christopher’s older sister by one year, is the only character who might lay some claim to being special, but not in any desired sense. Ginny has Down syndrome but does not want to talk about it too much. The audience might think that is the most interesting thing about her, but she doesn’t. If Ginny is special, it is not on account of her chromosomes.

    At one point in Corsicana, Ginny’s brother Christopher asks Lot if he could assist Ginny in producing some music. Lot, the artist, is confused why he was asked. “Does he think I’m … special?” “Special” here carries nothing of the honor of “special recognition” and all of the condescension of “Special Olympics.” It means not a difference of exemplarity but a difference of liability. Nobody wants to be special in that way, not even those with Down syndrome. “Special needs,” that strange bureaucratic classification, comes in rightly for excoriation; it implies that normal people have wants but special people have needs.

    Will Dagger and Jamie Brewer star in Will Arbery's Corsicana

    Will Dagger and Jamie Brewer star in Will Arbery’s Corsicana. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

    Corsicana may not be a Down syndrome play, but Ginny (played by Jamie Brewer, an actor with Down syndrome) inevitably is a representative. She represents Arbery’s own sister with Down syndrome, Julia, to whom the play is dedicated. When I watched the play at Playwrights Horizons, which also staged Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, for me Ginny represented my little sister, Jenna, who also has Down syndrome. The resemblance was, in the strict Freudian sense, uncanny: both like and unlike, the same and different. We want to insist that there are a wide variety of expressions of Down syndrome, a wide variety of impairment and capability, hobbies and fears, loves and hatreds. All of that is true. And yet, when Ginny began singing along with her boom box, it was my sister’s voice that came from her mouth. She sings karaoke every day, in the same off-tone way Ginny does. She, like Ginny, had a long and illustrious career of Special Olympics bowling. Like Ginny, Jenna’s most used iPad app is Disney+. Jenna, too, can sing all the words to a Hilary Duff song from memory. The insistence that she is an adult who can be befriended but not babysat is also Jenna. All of it is Jenna.

    At intermission I leaned over and said to my wife, “All they need to make the similarity perfect is a long monologue where Ginny talks to herself to explain to herself what is going on in her life.” Not long after the actors took the stage again in the second act, Ginny performed a monologue. Staged monologues are unlike the monologues of most people, which take place silently in our own heads. But in the men’s room at more than one Down syndrome advocacy events, I’ve overheard people with Down syndrome carrying on extemporaneous monologues with themselves to explain and interpret their world. Ginny, like Jenna, would have given that monologue even if there was no audience to hear it. Arbery said he set out to say what it was like to be the brother of a sister with Down syndrome. I can attest that he succeeded.

    Corsicana draws attention to Ginny’s Down syndrome in order to draw attention away from it. She wants to write a song, perhaps even a song about her own life. But she insists immediately that she doesn’t want to sing about Down syndrome. The implicit plea is not for special treatment, but for normal treatment. “We have to act like adults,” Ginny says, when her brother tries to slack off in his responsibility. “I’m twenty-eight,” says Jenna with annoyance if ever she gets a whiff that someone would treat her like the child that she most certainly is not. People with Down syndrome are vulnerable and needy, just like the rest of humanity. But if the care comes packaged with condescension, they would prefer to suffer in noble isolation. Who could blame them? Who among us, faced with those two options, would not do the same? People with Down syndrome are not heroes, nor should they become objects of a lurid fascination; they are people in relationships of reciprocity with other people. Ginny is Christopher’s caretaker as much as Christopher is Ginny’s caretaker. Corsicana downplays Down syndrome only because our social imagination does not yet have the categories necessary to understand uniqueness without fetishization.

     
     
     
     

    By writing a script with a more prominent place for an actor with Down syndrome than any other play I know of, while simultaneously drawing attention away from Ginny’s Down syndrome and toward her humanity, Arbery has attempted to advance both the visibility and normalization of people with Down syndrome in one bold move. In this he may be hoping to skip forward a stage in advocacy for those with Down syndrome. I do not think we have arrived there yet, but Arbery’s moonshot is worth it anyway. Toward the beginning of the performance I attended, the audience around me laughed at almost everything Ginny said – even the lines that struck me neither as funny nor as intended to be funny. If Aristotle was right to suggest that one source of humor is incongruity, then it is plausible to think that what the audience was laughing at was the incongruity of a “special person” saying “normal human” things. “We are adults, and we have to act like it,” says Ginny, and the audience laughs at even the mere thought that a person with Down syndrome might be an adult. But lines that are not funny when delivered from the mouth of a typically-developed person should not suddenly become punch lines when delivered from the mouth of a person with Down syndrome.

    By the end of the play, the audience no longer laughed when Ginny spoke. They had been catechized.

    Contributed By portrait of Justin Hawkins

    Justin R. Hawkins is pursuing a PhD in religious studies and political science at Yale University.

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