Banner collage that features of a photo of a dynamic theater troupe in various poses, from jumping in the air to bending down with a cane to sitting in a wheelchair

Every time is crip time; the forms of it are just always evolving. Right now, I’m living in the kind of crip time that’s in the “I Haven’t Seen Anyone for Six Months Club” of pandemic immune compromised homelife, organizing with other disabled Black and brown people from a laptop in bed in between wiping down the grocery delivery. During a global pandemic, it’s increasingly hard to remember sitting in a big New York performance space filled with a panoply of other disabled people.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Yet a year ago, that’s exactly where I was. I was in New York, at Performance Space New York and the Whitney Museum, as a performer, co-conspirator, and enthralled audience member in I wanna be with you everywhere (IWBWYE), “a gathering of, by, and for disabled artists and writers and anyone who wants to get with us for a series of crip meetups, performances, readings, and other social spaces of surplus, abundance, and joy.”

I was in a room of 300 disabled people flirting, talking, stimming, and resting, coming back night after night to see disabled art and be with each other–with other disabled people. The show featured performances and readings by Eli Clare, John Lee Clark, Kayla Hamilton, Johanna Hedva, Jerron Herman, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, Camisha L. Jones, Jordan Lord, NEVE, Alice Sheppard, and me. The cast and audience was majority disabled, Deaf, Deaf/Blind, autisticBlack, brown, queer, trans, and genderqueer.

IWBWYE assumed a space of disabled playfulness, insider language, crip joy, and potential.
The performances were incredible: ambitious, multisensory, and disciplined, flying far, far beyond the basic “tragic / overcoming / do you want to tell us about your disability?” narratives crip creators are too often shoehorned into without our consent. But the truly luscious access the show’s producers created in the built environment of the space was as much of what stuck with me as the content. Five rows of creative adaptive device seating in the front. Giant featherbeds for people with pain (including yours truly), also at the front of house, to lie on to watch the show. A sensory room designed by and for neurodivergent people with a ton of free ear defenders, pillow forts in the corners to recline on, beanbags draped with curtains, coloring books, and a seashell collection. ASL and captioning, yes, but one of my most crip-cherished memories of the show was watching one of the audio describers dancing in her wheelchair as she whispered a description into her headset for Blind and visually disabled audience members during Jerron Herman’s closing vogue jam performance.

In short, this was a performance space of deep disabled possibility, freedom, and joy. One you don’t get every day. And that’s a goddamn shame.

I’ve been a disabled writer, performance artist, and producer for over 20 years, and I’ve seen the gamut of disability in performance. I was there in the years when basic access wasn’t anywhere on the radar of the collectives I worked with, let alone disability culture: where of course the space was up a flight of stairs, or three, and we shrugged, defensively. We were cash-poor, queer, of-color artists who every space said no to, taking what we could get. We could barely pay ourselves, and you want a ramp and fragrance-free space?! Even though I was disabled then too, I just swallowed hard and kept on silently taking care of my disability needs on my own. The cash and space scarcity and internalized ableism we were moving from is one I understand, and have witnessed in many other collectives and spaces.

And then, two years after I moved to Oakland in 2009 and ran into a disabled BIPOC community for the first time, I got hired as a featured performer with Sins Invalid, the game-changing disability justice performance collective. Just four years after disabled Black, Asian, and poor and working class white trans disabled activists invented the term “disability justice,” Sins was the first place I saw a deep cripping of the arts. It was where we started tech week with an hours-long access check-in for performers and staff that we then built our rehearsal, tech, and performance around–far from the two hours of frantic tech I was used to.

And there was a huge sense of disabled regularness. Of course there was a huge spread of food accessible to everyone’s dietary needs; of course there was audio description, captions on all the videos, skilled ASL interpretation, and a huge mobility device-user seating area (not the paltry one or two spots of other theaters). And of course the audience and the performers together made a lush world of disabled joy. After my first performance, friends commented that they’d never seen me as present on stage. I didn’t know how to say, yeah, it’s because I’m not having to check half of my identity and most of my body/mind at the door.

Like many other disabled artists who participated in Sins, I felt spoiled and forever changed after my first run with them. Going back to non-disabled performance spaces that sucked at access and had zero disabled awareness was incredibly hard, especially after seeing how rich disabled performance could be when access and crip wisdom were a cornerstone, not a begrudging afterthought.

So I did my part to shape the change I wanted. I co-founded, with Syrus Marcus Ware, Performance/Disability/Art (PDA), a small, Toronto-based disability justice arts collective. I worked as “access czar” for other queer, of-color performance spaces looking to deepen their access. However, for a long time it still often felt like Sins was the only game in town when it came to Black and brown disabled queer performance with BIPOC politics and high production and accessibility values. The other disabled performance collectives I knew were either dominated by whiteness or were under-resourced disabled BIPOC collectives with great art but without the money to always pull off a show with ambitious production values.

Fourteen years after the birth of disability justice, I wanna be with you everywhere improvised new directions in crip art. It was a big fuck you to the tremulously earnest yet half-assed “inclusion” and “Do you want to say more about your disability?” model that disabled artists often get when we try to get our work into non-disabled spaces.

As the organizers wrote in the show’s website notes, “IWBWYE refuses policies of individuation and inclusion in favor of (and in the flavor of) whatever disability aesthetics has in bodymind. We won’t know what this is ’til it shows us, but we do know that disability communities don’t only make art about disability. 😉 (winky face emoticon).”

For too long, when we’ve had any space at all, we’ve been asked in a million ways to tokenize ourselves, accept being the only crip artist on the lineup, and to represent all disabled people, asked to pay for and do all the work of access. We’re expected to create artwork that’s inspiration porn or a laborious 101 explanation, where the audience is always assumed to be abled. Instead, IWBWYE assumed a space of disabled playfulness, insider language, crip joy, and potential.

“Programs and events will unfold across each evening, but there’s also going to be a major sense of ease,” the co-designers wrote. “There’s time in between events for hanging out–both in and of itself, and in resistance to the inaccessible infrastructure that so often keeps us physically separated.”

A major sense of ease. Those words stick with me. Because so much of the time in performance, there is a major sense of no ease. Lack of access that is as much about an attitude of guilt, defensiveness, and “it’s impossible, we can’t do that” as it is about what equipment is in the theater, what space is there or can be created. In a sphere that prides itself on pushing the envelope, where nothing is too wild, blood and shit smeared on bodies is no problem, performance and theater are remarkably conservative when it comes to cripping performance. This ableism can infest all of us–including me.

When I saw that IWBWYE was having only two or three performers a night, with a 30-45 minute break between each set, I was incredulous. That’s not how you do a show! People will be outraged! People will feel cheated! I thought that in order to get people to come out and get their money’s worth, you need to have one night with six, eight, 12 performers.

But when I was in the audience actually experiencing the shows, I felt a tentative opening blooming in my chest. This is one deep way to crip performance. Giving people with diverse access needs–for a sensory cooldown in order to process intense art, time to go to the bathroom with an attendant–that space, without apology, meant that we were able to be fully present with the art in a way we are almost never allowed to be.

That sense of presence infected everyone there, I dare to say. I saw it, in Hermon’s disabled dance jam at the end, in the slow way more and more disabled people came together and took up space. Dragging chairs onto the dance floor and dancing in them. Rolling on the ground. Dancing with hands, crutches, canes, and walkers. Disrupting the binary of who was a dancer/performer and who wasn’t. Taking up space, grooving together.

In an ableist world, any spaces we can create for disabled joy, rest, and possibility are deeply important. We need space to not just be able to get in the door, but to push the envelope of what we think is possible. Disability justice art is a freedom portal, a temporary autonomous zone of cripworld pleasure and possibility. As disabled artists push the envelope of cripping art, IWBWYE is a part of making the next world that’s possible.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is the Lambda Award–winning author or co-editor of nine books, including (co edited with Ejeris Dixon) Beyond Survival: Stories and Strategies From the Transformative Justice Movement, TonguebreakerCare Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way HomeBodymapLove Cake, and The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities. A lead artist with Sins Invalid, she holds an MFA from Mills College and is the recipient of the 2020 Lambda Literary Foundation Jean Cordova Prize for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction.