The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series concludes with Amelia Cavallo’s triumphant disabled-led takeover of Trafagar Square.
Audio version by Hannah McPake:
It’s a beautifully mild, sunny day in London, one of the three or four days a year we get that are not either rain-spattered or so stiflingly sticky that you’re left desperately trying to find shade while beating away thoughts of global warming. One might even go so far as to say it’s perfect weather for an outdoor festival in Trafalgar Square.
In the morning, passersby, tourists and people rushing to work may have spied signs and banners, tents being set up, maybe some balloons being tied to various plinths. At first, it might look like any other central London summer event. But they might have noticed that those setting up the space consist of a beautifully diverse group of people, including visibly and invisibly disabled people, as well as people wearing shirts that carried logos for charities such as LGBTIQ+ Outsiders, Mermaids and African Rainbow Family. They might have heard music from a stage at the back of Trafalgar Square, where members of the Paraorchestra, Krip Hop Nation and the band Fish Police appear to be doing a sound check. And if they had a closer look, they would have seen the phrase “Occupation Army Of Cripples” plastered across all of the paraphernalia decorating the area.
This is a phrase that lovingly refers to the documentary Crip Camp, and to the activists it depicts. I know everyone is talking about Tiger King on Netflix, but frankly I am not interested in watching corrupt and powerful men abuse the living beings around them. It hits a little too close to home. Instead, I’ve found Crip Camp to be one of the most joyous things that I as a disabled person have watched in a long time. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I learned a lot about the disability rights movement, including why I have the right and freedom to do things like sit in front of a snazzy Mac in my lovely little London flat next to my same sex partner, who I legally married last month right before shit hit the fan, and write this review for y’all.
Crip Camp presents a group of disabled people in the USA in the 1970s, staging a long sit in protest that eventually led to the Americans With Disabilities Act, with the support of queer groups and the Black Panther Party. At one point in the documentary, an old news report describes the protesters as “The Occupation Army of Cripples.” I LOVE this phrase for so many reasons. First and foremost, I love the word “cripple.” In modern vernacular it is considered a slur by most, but within the disability community it is used as a reclamation of a powerful political ideology, much in the way the LGBTQQIA+ community uses the word queer. I also, despite my pacifistic tendencies, love the image of an “army of cripples” occupying anything, because frankly, it is a rarity that we get to come together and take up any space like that. The protest shown in the documentary also presented a glimpse of what a crip utopia could look like. It was grassroots, politicised and had people working for the greater good. It also had access for all built into the infrastructure of how they operated, down to having a sign language interpreter present for every meeting. I’m not saying it was an easy time for the protestors – in fact many talk about how incredibly difficult it was – but the image and the ethos is beautiful. And the events of this beautiful summer’s day in Trafalgar Square have all been designed with this ethos in mind.
At noon, everything kicks off with a bang. A large and energetic brass band hoots into action, announcing a huge group of people who joyfully march down the streets in peaceful protest. At the front of the group is another large banner held by a group of shouting and whooping disabled people that reads “Occupation Army of Cripples: Nothing About Us Without Us.” Others hold placards saying “Save the Independent Living Fund” and “Accessibility for All!” and “Not All Disabilities Are Visible.” This march takes over The Strand for a brief and meaningful moment, culminating in an arrival at Trafalgar Square, where the stage is set for a beautifully orchestrated concert for people to dance, sing or just happily listen to. There are captions, BSL interpreters and audio describers present throughout, translating whatever information was needed for any blind and d/Deaf people present.
Once the concert is finished, there are big and beautiful performances by UK disability led favourites such as Graeae Theatre Company, Touretteshero, Birds of Paradise and Extant, as well as work from members of Access All Areas and international visitors such as Sins Invalid (USA) and Novi Zivot (Croatia). For those that find the main space a bit too hot and crowded, there’s the Quiplash Tent. Quiplash is a new performance project that exists to make space for disabled people across the LGBTQQIA+ spectrum. It runs a day of “chilled cabaret” where people can stand, sit or lay down in a lovely tent and listen to spoken word, comedy or snippets from Quiplash’s latest show Unsightly Drag, which features blind and visually impaired drag queens, kings and things (such as Ebony Rose Dark, Tito Bone and Venetia Blind – look them up, they’re great) who have integrated audio description into their performances.
Another highlight of the day is the plethora of well priced and (if I do say so myself) delicious food stalls available for multiple dietary needs. They’re joined by stalls from charities, activist groups and theatre companies both directly and indirectly related to disability culture, who set up shop around the edges of Trafalgar Square and chat to people about what they are doing and what needs to be done to continue to support Deaf and disabled people in the arts, and in society in general.
There are a plethora of audio describers, BSL interpreters, care and wellness workers and general access workers on hand to support anyone who needs it. Each performance has creative captioning. There are well labelled quiet areas with comfy spaces to sit or lie down for anyone who needs a break, which is no small feat in a giant and otherwise public outdoor space.
It is also worth noting that, while the day is absolutely celebratory and joyful, it’s also very much understood by participants to be a peaceful protest. Each performance carries the ever important message of how present d/Deaf and disabled people should be in society, and how this is still a massive societal issue, even in the post-corona world. The protest is both overt and subtle; just having d/Deaf and disabled people present themselves publicly as radical, creative and vital members of the world feels like an act of rebellion.
You might think that I am describing a cross between a pride event (from when pride was actually a protest as opposed to a pink-washed and over-corporatised money-making machine) and the old Liberty Festival (which is sorely missed), and you would be right. That is exactly what this day is. It’s only a day, but it has a massive impression on everyone there, from the participants to the unknowing tourists that just happened to be passing by. This event is undeniable proof that disabled people need to stay visible, audible, smellable, and consensually touchable and tastable… whatever your dominant sense-able. Making this happen is both complex and simple. Complex in that an event like this obviously takes large amounts of planning and support. Simple in that the goal is beautifully clear: disabled people need to take up space in the most raucous and accessible way possible, for as long as they (we) want to do it, for as long as they (we) need to to make proper systemic change.