Six days ago, in what should have been just another “ordinary” work day for folks in Broadway, an incident in the matinee of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” made waves in social media for entirely different reasons. As the actor Kelvin Moon Loh tells it, a young child with autism got affected during the whipping scene and overcome with emotion, cried out loudly. It wasn’t the child’s reaction that bothered the actors on stage, Mr. Loh, particularly; it was the audience’s response to the child and his mother. I should simply post what Mr. Loh wrote about this incident. It’s far better than any way I can tell it.
I am angry and sad.
Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.
That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.
You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.
Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?
The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.
It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?
His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.
Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-
For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.
I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.
And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.
As a parent of a severely disabled young man, I can speak first hand of how this lack of compassion has been the norm most of my son’s life. There have been many times when Alphonse has been shooed and shushed for his actions in public, when his loud shrieks and squeals have received angry stares, when his large, jerky movements have been met with impatience and hostility. Mr. Loh’s experience with the unsympathetic, almost boorish, behavior of the audience is not strange to us. Despite this, parents of children with disabilities- those with autism most of all- have to always walk a tightrope balancing their children’s needs with those of the larger public. It is a most difficult line to tread. I refer you back to an excerpt from one of my old posts:
I have to speak my mind on the entitlements many feel we parents of autism use to “get our way” in the world. As a parent of a child with autism, I am very aware of my son’s dependence on the kindness, tolerance, and compassion of others. As such, we have never used autism as an excuse to take advantage of others or refrain from obeying rules. Autism in our lives has not given us a sense of claim and privilege; on the contrary, we have learned to sublimate many of our own needs in favor of others’ comfort and wellbeing. We are always mindful and grateful for accommodations made for our son. And in the event that our son feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed or frightened, we are always first to remove him from these situations. The only real thing we ever ask for always is not to be judged. (from Flight Risk, 27 June 2008)
While we have always been quick to intervene, to calm, coax, and comfort him, we realize that we have done these less for his sake than for ours. Ashamed to be in the middle of curious, often unsympathetic, stares, embarrassed by the unwanted, unfriendly attention, we have often voluntarily given up his right to be seen, heard, and be part of this world.
We owe Alphonse his chance to move in the same world we do- to explore, to grow, to learn by experience. Lack of compassion and empathy from a society that treats him and others like him as inconveniences notwithstanding, we continue to struggle to give him his space under the sun. We owe him that much.
Mr. Loh, thank you for standing up for our children. Thank you believing them worthy of your talent and time. Thank you for your respect and kindness. You have given us new dreams for our children. God bless you always.
In parting, I leave you with pictures taken from last Sunday’s outing with Alphonse. You can see the happiness in his face as he steps out into the world.
All set to go out into the world!
We will always walk hand in hand.
Should you bump into him one of these days, I pray that you find it in your heart to show kindness and compassion.
I promise you his smile will be all worth it.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”