In this play back by popular demand after a sell-out season in 2018, the real lives of seven Western Australians featured in an all Downs cast are tenderly shared in the merry setting of the Summer Bay diner against crisp projections of a rolling ocean tide.
Julia Hales, lead artist and self-professed number one Home and Away fan, lovingly presents a theatre of care, reclamation, and autonomy. With her animated storytelling delivered directly to her audience, Julia fashions the Heath Ledger stage into a site of self-definition and celebrating a very radical love: the deep, unconditional and wise love shared between friends and partners of the same systemically marginalised identities. The audience witnesses the cast seeing, knowing and valuing each other without the second thoughts regularly made by our non-disabled counterparts in society, the ones frequently casting judgements at Julia which she unapologetically shares with the audience throughout the play. But more than celebrate the lives of these performers by simply putting them under a spotlight, this play takes the stories, joys, and talents of a socio-politicised community and delivers them through the lens of their own eyes, free from the ever dehumanising, infantilising, and inspiration porn seeking gaze of non-disabled society.
The just representations that we crips* and the ableist world we navigate need, require not just inclusion of disabled* folk in the planning, production and leadership of storytelling, as was the case with ‘You Know We Belong Together’, but additionally a radical de-centring of the neurotypical and able-bodied person as the starting point from which all else differs. An accessible and inclusive future requires a crip-positivity which asserts our own value without the need for a non-disabled brain and body as a reference point of “normal”. Cultures of inaccessibility thrive on the conditions of ableism, a western concept which requires modes of decoloniality to counter. But in the very decolonial spirit of nurturing self-definition and reclaiming the images of herself shaped by neurotypicals, Julia asserts the stage as a site where Down syndrome is real and beautiful and the people blessed with it can coexist in the safety, joys, and generally gooey goodness of an inclusive and at times autonomous space, and it is such a delight to see a part of my community performing on their own terms on the very stage I have also seen disabled folk grossly misrepresented and in suffering as an unquestioning audience looks on with intrigued smiles. In contrast, I left the theatre last night proudly stimming at the bus stop, empowered to allow my neurodivergence visibility. ‘You Know We Belong Together’ is a necessary reclamation of disabled voice, delivered with the radical power of love, and a work of kindness and care which privileges the identities of the Downs community in their own image in a time and place where the subjectivities of crip bodies are frequently filtered through the gaze of ableist culture.
‘You Know We Belong Together’ runs until Sunday, March 31st at the State Theatre Centre of WA, with a captioned, audio described and tactile tour included performance on the 31st and Auslan signed performances every show.
*A note on language: the writer uses the language of the social model of disability, which makes a distinction between impairment and disability and defines disability as barriers encountered in society, hence the language of specifically being disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in our way. Crip is an inclusive, positive term representing the joys of disability culture and community, and the contemporary disability rights movement.
Words by Patrick Gunasekera