What Disability Inclusion on Broadway Means to Me as an Actress With Cerebral Palsy
When I saw “Newsies” in 2013, I realized I wanted to be on Broadway. Not as Crutchie, the newsboy with a limp like me, but rather as Katherine, the intelligent journalist trying to break out. Kara Lindsay won me over as she belted out “Watch What Happens” with her golden voice.
“That’s what I want to do! I want to be on Broadway!” I thought to myself. But a wave of sadness washed over me as I watched her number. I was three years into watching Broadway shows, but I already could tell there wasn’t one person like me on the Great White Way. Why would a girl with a voice like mine sing to thousands of people? And why would a girl with a big limp and a tiny hand dance, especially since Crutchie himself doesn’t dance in the show?
But Broadway’s latest production of “A Christmas Carol” (with its fantastic book written by Jack Thorne, who has a chronic disease called cholinergic urticaria), which closed earlier this month, changed all of that. Last summer, the producers announced a casting call for children with disabilities for the iconic role of Tiny Tim. Even though “A Christmas Carol” was transferring directly from London, it was no coincidence that they were looking for actors with disabilities. Actress Ali Stroker, who happens to be the first actress with a wheelchair on Broadway, had recently won a Tony Award for her dynamic performance as the traditionally abled role of Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
Even though “A Christmas Carol” was looking for any kind of disability for Tiny Tim, I knew at least one of the children had to have cerebral palsy. Tiny Tim has a cane and a limp, two features many kids with cerebral palsy have. Imagine my shock and joy that both of the child actors, 8-year-old Jai Srinivasan and 7-year-old Sebastian Ortiz, have cerebral palsy! I knew I would eventually see a person exactly like me on the stage. But, I never thought two children would make history as the first actors with cerebral palsy on the Broadway stage!
The first Tiny Tim, whom I saw on December 21, was Sebastian. Tiny Tim first appears towards the end of Act 1 during the Ghost of Christmas Present when he plays with father Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves) and the rest of his family. Sebastian was then given to an actress, who portrayed his sister, to lay on her lap (Jai is physically stronger, so he sat up during the scene). I started crying as soon as I saw him. Finally, an actor with cerebral palsy on Broadway! As a bonus, Sebastian’s voice is similar to mine. While his is much more understandable than mine, it is also naturally soft and it slurs a little — a condition that is common in verbal cerebral palsy. But the best was yet to come.
In Act II, Sebastian used his blue walker in his big scene where he meets Scrooge. Because Sebastian was carried around earlier, the audience presumed he couldn’t walk. When Sebastian returned on the stage with his walker, every single person in the audience gasped. Not only was the audience shocked Sebastian can walk, lo and behold he was using something they didn’t see on Broadway: a real walker on stage. It was as if Broadway was saying, “Yes, everybody! There are disabled actors in this world and they can do it.” That, everyone, is progress and direction.
Jai, whom I saw in the evening, has my limp and my condition with my right arm — down to the constantly in-the-air position and the hand wobble. Not even Crutchie had the charm of running with his little hand just hanging in the air. I wept during both shows because of the impact Sebastian and Jai had on me. I thought I would be rejected for my voice and my movement on Broadway. But now because of Jai and Sebastian, who knows? I can be the first disabled Nessarose in “Wicked!”
I don’t even have a favorite Tiny Tim. Sebastian and Jai were so wonderfully different. Sebastian’s smooth and happy acting maintained the classic charm of Tiny Tim with a touch of innocence. Jai was a very Artful Dodger-like Tiny Tim. With a Cockney accent, he sported spunk and playfulness.
My only complaint about the direction with the boys was the overall inclusion of them. The opening scene, entr’acte, and the finale had the whole cast altogether to narrate, play the handbells and even dance. However, neither Jai or Sebastian were in those scenes. They are included in the encore with a handbell duet with the amazing Campbell Scott, who played Scrooge. But why weren’t Jai and Sebastian featured with the rest of the cast in those scenes? I assumed they weren’t at the beginning because Tiny Tim is supposed to be a surprise in the story. But their exclusion in the other scenes doesn’t make sense in the narrative or direction-wise. Tiny Tim is revealed before the entr’acte, so why not feature the boys during the handbells? If the dance at the end was difficult, there were so many ways to overcome any obstacle.
Jai and Sebastian are a part of the amazing disability revolution that has started on Broadway and Off-Broadway in the last decade. Besides Stroker, my friend Russell Harvard (whom I am finally seeing at the end of the month) is playing two characters — originally written as abled — in the production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Last year, he starred in the revival of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with legendary actress Glenda Jackson. Both Stroker and Harvard made their Broadway debut in 2015’s overlooked revival of “Spring Awakening,” which starred a perfect mixed cast of deaf, disabled and abled actors. Finally, the 2017 revival of “The Glass Menagerie” (which I actually auditioned for), starring Sally Fields, had the first actress with a disability to play Laura — newcomer Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy. And those were just a couple of examples.
All of those great happenings took place during my junior and senior year of college — a time when I left my graphic design program and was looking for other majors, including theater. Unfortunately for me, if I started a BA in theater between my junior and senior years, I would have graduated much later.
I didn’t pursue a theater major like I was originally hoping to because not only was I unsure about job opportunities, but people always convinced me that I wouldn’t make it in acting. If only I had Jai and Sebastian or Ali Stroker and that shiny Tony in my freshman year, my college life would have turned out so positively different. Still, I am satisfied in knowing that these two little boys have given future Theater majors with cerebral palsy full confidence in studying acting because they will now know they can make it!
Thank you, Sebastian and Jai! Lead the way.