THEATER San Francisco’s Brava Theatre is mostly dark, except for the spotlights on stage. Under the white light, singer Nomy Lamm’s face peers out from under the beak of a vulture headpiece. She flaps her feathered wings and thrusts her hips, like she is working a hula hoop in slow motion.
"I remember the feel of your hands on my body," Lamm sings. "Makes me scream, ‘Am I broken?’"
It is three weeks before the premiere of this year’s Sins Invalid’s performance art show of the same name, and artistic director Patty Berne sits near the back of the theater. She watches Lamm’s rehearsal intently, and as the performance ends, her face splits into an approving smile. "Oh Nomy, I am so frickin’ excited," Berne exclaims. "That was so hot you don’t even know!"
Currently in its fourth year, Sins Invalid is an annual performance project about sexuality and disability. The upcoming show, which runs for three nights at Brava, showcases 12 performances from local and international artists, including Oakland’s Seeley Quest and the U.K.’s Mat Fraser. The collection of theatrical, musical, spoken word, and multimedia performances includes passages that are confrontational and provocative and moments that are soft and sweet.
According to Berne, who is also the cofounder of Sins, the show’s dimensions reflect the diverse issues that people with disabilities face, living in societies where they are traditionally perceived as unsexy, or even sexless. "[People with disabilities] are thought of as asexual and [it’s assumed] that our lives are defined by our disabilities," she says. "Thinking that we are neutered is absurd. It’s like assuming parents stop having sex because they have a child."
According to the Sins Invalid mission statement, the performance project not only supports artists with disabilities, it also strives to centralize "artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists." The goal of the organization, explained cofounder Leroy Moore, has been to create a community of historically marginalized artists and to provide a mirror for those who are disabled, queer, or of color.
The tone of this year’s two-hour show is set with Lamm’s opening act, "a sexy monster rock opera" called The Reckoning. Dressed as a vulture, Lamm plays a dejected animal that struggles to know itself and its place in the universe. In the more intimate Bird Song, she is an abandoned baby bird that sings from a nest made of stuffed panty hose and prosthetic legs.
"[Bird Song] is about quiet power. It’s like, ‘I know what I have, and when you’re ready to see it, come say hi,’" said Lamm.
Other artists, among them Fraser and choreographer/dancer Antoine Hunter, use their bodies to create powerful performances. In the solo act No Retreat, No Surrender, Fraser taps into his martial arts training to simulate being physically beaten to a soundtrack of insults commonly hurled by ableists. In The Scene, theater marries film in a sexually explicit and tense performance about a man who visits a dominatrix and unexpectedly undergoes an inner transformation.
Moore, who plays the visitor in The Scene, explained that in addition to flipping the notion of who visits a dominatrix, the piece is about loving oneself. "In the beginning [of the scene, the man going to the domme] is not sure what to expect. At the end, he comes to love himself and know ‘I am beautiful.’"
Since the inaugural Sins Invalid showing at Brava in 2006, what once was a one-night annual event has blossomed into a three evenings of performance. According to Berne, previous shows have packed full houses. The public’s reaction to the project, many Sins artists say, has been a validating if not overwhelming experience.
For Sins performer Quest, who lives day-to-day as a "broke-ass artist schlep," receiving shout-outs from past audience members is one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. "All year ’round, people are like, ‘I saw you at the show, and I told about my friend about you guys!’ People are circuutf8g the news and it’s totally gratifying."
By helping to create new dialogue among the disabled and able-bodied communities, many of those involved with Sins feel like they are making history and as Moore states, rewriting the books as well. "[Being involved in Sins] feels like I’m correcting history for people with disabilities," says the Berkeley activist. "History is not written from us it’s always about others. Now we get to speak our own stories."
Houston-based Maria Palacios, a spoken word artist who has been with Sins for three years, feels that the project passes the torch of hope to the next generation of people with disabilities. "When I was growing up, I didn’t have a Barbie with a wheelchair," Palacios said. "But now kids will have us as heroes to look up to they will have a history in place already."
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