Diana Jordan (1992)
When we think about non-traditional casting, it is still primarily in terms of race. The talk is of actors of color, the casting is conceived on cultural terms. Disability remains an afterthought. This puts me in an unusual situation, as I am an African American actress who is also disabled.
There has been some change in this situation. For instance, in the last two years, the League of Chicago Theaters has begun to emphasize actors with disabilities at their regular multicultural auditions. Also, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act has had an effect; I’ve worked on three industrial films in the last year alone as a result of it. But, at the same time, I think change has been slow. We’ve learned how to talk about the issues much more than how to put them into practice.
Non-traditional casting has been important to me. I would not be working if all I did was sit around waiting for the next good disabled role to be written. In most of the roles I’ve played, I have brought my disability to the role. I have been very fortunate, however. I have worked steadily since starting my professional career in 1987. I have played Snout in Midsummer Night’s Dream, I have done several projects for children, I have performed in new plays.
With disability we still have a lot of education to do. There are so many myths to overcome. My disability is as much a part of who I am as my being African American. I would be a different person without it. I have had a disability all my life. I am not the lesser for it, I am not sad and tragic. It is just another attribute of mine. Yet, I do not see myself as a disabled actress, nor even as a black actress. I am an actress. Disability doesn’t stop me from going inside myself to find characters and value. Nor would it stop me from playing an alcoholic, a psychotic, or a mother with two children. Or all three.
In auditions, my disability may be seen as the primary thing. Even at a black theater, it may still be seen. I don’t talk much about my disability, though, until I am cast. At the first rehearsal, I talk about my disability with my fellow actors to eliminate any concerns they may have. I present this with a sense of humor and answer questions afterwards, if there are any.
Most recently, I played Laura in the Black Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie. I didn’t approach her as a character with a disability, but by stepping into her skin, as I would with any character. I didn’t see her as weak, but as a strong woman, fighting to keep everything in her world from breaking. It was more an emotional difficulty than a physical difficulty for her. One of my biggest fears in the part was that people would think that Laura was me. Laura isn’t me. That was acting. My own disability happened to enhance that role, but I don’t want people to think that I could do it only because I was disabled.
I am very happy that I made acting my career choice. It isn’t always easy, but the satisfaction I get from acting far outweighs the hard times that I (like any other actor) go through. I hope in the future I will continue to be blessed with wonderful projects and have the opportunity to bring to life many characters, not just ones that are disability- or race-specific.
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