When Jordan Jankus, Director of Special Needs at the Northern Westchester Center of the Arts, berated his onstage clients in the role of Max Blumx in their production “Can You See Me,” he knew was do so with good cause.
The fictional Max Blumx employs a group of Traumatic Brain Injured individuals and as one of his many profitable business endeavors begins to deteriorate, he points the finger of blame. He arbitrarily shows the NWCA actors the door – and without anything as pleasant as a pink slip. Mr. Blumx calls one employee an “idiot” and tells one actor confined to a wheelchair to “spit it out,” as she repeatedly tries to articulate a response to the action.
Mr. Jankus says he wanted the character to be harsh in order to demonstrate that a disability isn’t always connected to the mobility of someone’s legs or whether there’s damage to the brain’s speech center. Many times a person’s disability stems from the lack of a heart, and it doesn’t necessarily discriminate against another based on their ability or lack there of.
Of course, the Abilities Beyond Disabilities production was equally about generating a good time for any of the hopefuls who would gather at 272 North Bedford Road last Friday night. And that was clearly evident with the roar of laughs the actors were showed with when the young women in the wheelchair finally spit out the words, “you’re fired,” in response to Max Blumx’s angry tirade.
Mr. Jankus made sure, as the playwright, that coming full circle didn’t just end with a snappy one liner to justify bringing Max to life onstage. Max suffers a brain injury after a serious car accident and ends up in character being played by TBI client Michael Finkelstein.
Worse yet for Max, he appears with the employees he fired from the first scene in a rehabilitation program. A program that intentionally did its best to resemble the atmosphere at the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts.
Singing, art and a little rowdiness, but with a twist thrown in by the TBI cast, which played for both comedic effect and social commentary. They conjured up a supervisor named nurse Bull Schmidt to demonstrate that a brain injury does not mean the end of brain function.
Nurse Bull Schmidt likes order, and as she encounters the group grooving to the music, she tells the art director, “We keep it calm, not rowdy.” Which could only beg a hijacked response by the main characters, “Yes, nurse Bull ….”
Calm and quiet, “That was the old model,” says Mr. Jankus, as he feels all disabled people have the right to this type of artistic outlet in a program. His TBI “guys,” as he calls them, often have short term memory loss, but still retain much of their personalities from long term memory.
Hence, the contemporary sense of humor they display onstage, which in turn contributed to the ribbing they greet Mr. Blumx to upon his arrival.
They break in the theme song to “Welcome Back Kotter,” but soon after let him know that they are ready to welcome him into the fold with a rendition of “I’ll be there.”
Of course, the TBI actors know firsthand the very long term emotional recovery time necessary to accept themselves in their new situation. “They all came to the point where you have to realize there’s another day,” says Mr. Jankus and so Max got a boost from Mr. Jankus’ developmentally disabled “guys” in act two.
The actors individually came out an expressed all they had to be thankful for. In general, friends, family, spouses, God and all the instructors at NWCA, but it was the love of music and dance that kicked the second act into gear. “A Little Help from My Friends” gave way to “Burn Baby Burn” and some Saturday Night Fever high steps.
The night ended with the words of a man Mr. Jankus likes to call, “the mayor of the NWCA.” On stage, Donald Preggy recanted the true life events that befell him 45 years ago when he was six. He broke through the ice, and since he didn’t reemerge until well after the customary four minutes necessary for brain death, he considers himself to be lucky. “They told me I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything, and now I can pretty much do anything,” he concluded.
Rich Monetti coverage of event at Northern Westchester Center of the Arts with Jordan Jankus and Donald Preggy