Features

Front & Center

Stars step into the spotlight at a place where the actors, artists, and writers just happen to have disabilities.

Front & Center
Stephanie Colgan
Everyday tasks are difficult for Allison Baldridge, but she’s all smiles at play practice.

PRI's Letter to the Editor and
Our Response to PRI

Editors note: In January, we published "Front & Center"  about Partnership Resources, Inc., a Twin Cities organization that serves people with disabilities. We received feedback that took issue with our descriptions of the individuals we profiled in the story. We stand by the original story, however, we also believe that one of the roles of a city magazine is to help foster open healthy dialogues that make our cities an even better place to live. With that in mind, we agreed to post a version of story highlighting changes suggested by PRI. Please click here to read this version.

Letter to the Editor from PRI:
In your January issue, you printed an article (“Front and Center”) that focused on the clients and work of Partnership Resources, Inc. I greatly appreciate the author’s goal to enlighten readers about individuals with developmental disabilities—a segment of society that may be unfamiliar to them.But the writer used outdated and perhaps insensitive terms to describe citizens who have historically been marginalized and misunderstood. Instead of raising awareness, these words perpetuate stereotypes that are inaccurate and negative.

For more than 50 years, our staff and clients have focused on individuals’ abilities, not their disabilities. I believe that taking a more positive and balanced approach, particularly at the beginning of the article would have improved its tone without making it any less compelling.

I recently met with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine staffers and it quickly became obvious to me that the intent of this article was to honor individuals with disabilities and to help raise awareness. For that I am thankful. Nobody understands the power and the impact of the written word more than you.

I also appreciate that your editors agreed to add our feedback to this version of the article. I encourage your readers to take a moment to read it to familiarize themselves with more culturally sensitive terms when referring to or addressing people with disabilities.

Norm Munk, M.Ed., M.S.
Chief Executive Officer
Partnership Resources, Inc.
 

ALLISON BALDRIDGE HAS BIG BLUE-GRAY EYES. and a grin like a cartoon smiley-face sun breaking through sad clouds. She also has a difficult form of mental retardation that leaves her stand-still stunned by everyday negotiations. Like how to get a coat on when there’s something in your hand. Baldridge needs someone to help her navigate almost every hour of every day. She’s always been like this, and she used to have seizures, too. What is the right place in the world for Baldridge?

And Nik Neiss, born with Down syndrome and a host of medical troubles, including a pharyngeal flap that won’t shut to allow a standard voice, and a hairless face that leaves him with a resting expression of having just been startled. What is the right place in the world for Neiss?

And Marisa Bingham, who has no-nonsense green eyes, who donated her long chestnut hair to Locks of Love, and who is noted by most people for a head that is swollen with hydrocephaly and a body twisted by spina bifida and seizures. A 26-year-old woman who maneuvers the world with a motorized wheelchair and snappy one-liners—“I’m a giver, that’s all I do”—that she may or may not understand. What’s the right place in the world for Bingham? Norm Munk has the answer: onstage.

Norm Munk, right, CEO of Partnership Resources, helps clients find their public voice.

Munk is the CEO of Partnership Resources, Inc., an agency serving about 275 adults with developmental disabilities in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. Munk has produced a remarkable documentary called Born for the Stage chronicling the theater work of Baldridge, Neiss, Bingham, and others served by the agency. The film follows them as they put on a production of Hairspray, the musical adaptation of the 1988 John Waters movie starring Ricki Lake, Sonny Bono, and Deborah Harry.

The play stars Baldridge as Tracy Turnblad; Neiss as Seaweed, the African American dancer who teaches Tracy all the winning moves; and Bingham as the shallow mother Velma Von Tussel. Born for the Stage follows them and their fellow actors through auditions, rehearsals, dress rehearsal, and finally the big show. The production—with Baldridge in a sky-high blond beehive wig, Neiss dancing with loose abandon, and Bingham wearing marabou feathers that stream as she glides over the stage in her wheelchair—ran for two nights at McPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis and sold out.

Waters was so moved by raw footage of the event that he reached out to the group when he was in town. “It was beautiful, what you all did. It was touching,” Waters, the ultimate outsider’s outsider, told them in a meeting that also appears in the film. “I think you should start touring with it!” Now finished, the movie has been shown at the Manhattan Film Festival and broadcast on TPT-TV Channel 2.

ZOMBIE ELVIS

Since their brush with fame, the Partnership Resources actors have moved on to other projects—and other aspects of the dramaturgical arts. They are being led in the creation of one-act plays, which will be performed this month at The Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.

Neiss wrote a dark, of-the-moment comedy called Zombie Elvis. As the play opens, Elvis is innocently going about his business—he’s a funeral home owner—when his nemesis appears: “I am going to kill you because you are fat and puffy,” his nemesis warns. “I don’t like people who are fat and puffy!” Professional-wrestling-style flips and pile-drivers ensue. Sadly, Elvis is defeated and becomes a zombie.

Happily, this twist of fate leads to love, for in a nearby graveyard he meets Zombie Priscilla. “Hi. My name is Elvis. I think you are a cute zombie,” says Zombie Elvis. Priscilla responds swiftly, “Thanks! Right back at you—you are also a pretty cute zombie!” Love follows its natural course and Zombie Priscilla accepts Zombie Elvis’s proposal of marriage. He presents her with a gift: “I made this casket for you so that you can always stay with me for all eternity in Graceland. The small window on the casket allows me to stare at your beautiful zombie face.”

With that bit of dialogue, the accent changes, and a simple play with an absurd plot becomes suddenly something new: art about disability, from within.

Marisa Bingham wrote a post-modern fairy tale entitled People Falling in Love When You’re Married. In it, Movie Star Anthony and Queen Margaret meet; Anthony comments on Margaret’s perfume and headband. They quickly bond over a shared enthusiasm: “I absolutely love safari animals! They are interesting to know and learn about.”

Unfortunately, the two lovers are attacked by a space alien. Fortunately, Anthony kills it. He proposes. Margaret accepts. They embark on a limo ride to Milwaukee to meet Anthony’s mother. Unfortunately, the alien’s powerful friend is a vengeful queen. Double unfortunately, that queen happens to be Margaret’s mother. A spell is cast. Now when Margaret looks at her beloved, she is overcome with horror; she can’t see that he is truly a movie star; she only sees a monster. The stage directions are clear: “Her nose wrinkles and she bites her bottom lip in utter disgust. She lets out a loud EWWWW as she looks at Anthony.” Anthony reacts: “But, Queen Margaret, I thought you loved me!” Fortunately, Anthony takes up scrapbooking, the power of which reunites them so they can live happily ever after.

It’s hard not to notice that both plays follow a similar line: visages transformed by the hands of strange fate to ugliness, but somehow, despite it all, treasured. These are silly plays, and yet utterly haunting in their primal cry for one very human desire: to be seen and loved.

“When Nik was little, people told us he would never read, never write, never talk—now he does all of those things,” says his mother, Judy Neiss. No one bothered to tell her Nik would never write one-act plays about zombies or star in a campy musical about segregation in 1960s Baltimore. That’s because the idea that the mentally impaired and physically disabled can produce art is a recent one. Before 1975, it was considered impossible, or impractical, even to attempt literacy in the mentally impaired. Before 1975, the answer to the question of what’s the right place in the world for people like Neiss was: somewhere else, away from the rest of us. And before that, the answer was: the grave.


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