“Disability is a common human experience and yet it’s made invisible and shamed. So we always hope audiences leave our shows with a greater capacity for self-love.” A decade after cofounding the performance collective Sins Invalid, executive director Patricia Berne maintains a bold vision for its work: disability justice must be born out of intersectional collective struggle, lead by those most impacted by systemic oppression. In preparation for the world premiere of its latest, Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom, Autostraddle spoke to Berne and performer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha about centralizing queer and gender non-conforming disabled artists of color in crip art, activism, love and liberation.
Tovah: I was moved by the show’s title, specifically the phrase “Becoming Crip Wisdom.” “Wisdom” evokes a very specific way of knowing or unknowing. What does “crip wisdom” mean to you?
Leah: People rarely get to view art that asserts that crips are geniuses. That we have knowledge, that we have life-saving brilliance. The ableist idea that we’re just these huge deficits is so strong. But my whole life is based around the idea that crip wisdom is both the ultimate reality and wisdom that everyone needs to learn from. I see crip wisdom in all the life-giving ways disabled, Deaf, sick and neurodivergent folks mentor each other, giving each other lifesaving wisdom that no doctor’s office will. We are often smarter and more skilled at navigating both our bodyminds and ableism than most medical professionals. Much of what I wrote about for this new show comes from the mentoring I’ve gotten from more seasoned crips and the mentoring I’ve passed on. Crip wisdom is the wisdom of slowing the fuck down and making movements that stay at the pace of the “slowest” members — disabled, parents, older folks, poor folks, caregivers — because when you move at the pace of the majority of people on the planet you have stronger movements.
Patricia: Knowledge is when we take information, facts, and create a system of understanding. Wisdom is when we know something because it’s in our bones. It’s our experience. Some things you just have to live through to really fucking get it. Aging in a disabled body is hard. The demands of ableism take a toll on you. Always having to take an ableist hit when you get on a plane. Or when you don’t have an attendant assistant when you need it. Every time you spend money you shouldn’t have to spend for healthcare. It makes you age faster — seriously. These are some of the themes we explore in the show.
Tovah: Did any recent political or social events influence the writing/performances in this upcoming show?
Patricia: As queer and disabled people of color, all of us have been impacted by the visibility of violence that impacts our communities. The Black Lives Matter movement has spoken to all of us very profoundly. Patriarchal violence against trans women of color hit us very hard. We’ve also all been deeply affected by climate change and the ways US consumerism contribute to the ongoing devastation of our planet, our earth body. All of these things have impacted the way we articulate what it’s like to live and birth and die as crip wisdom.
Leah: Jerika Bolen’s life and murder was very much on my mind throughout the lead up to the show. So were the deaths of many femmes in communities I am part of through suicide in the past year and a half. My piece “all the femmes come back” is about that. I wanted to write about the specific pressures that femmes and crips feel that can increase our suicidality — the intense pressure on us to be perfect, diamond hard and always competent and emotionally laboring because otherwise ableism and femmephobia and transmisogyny and sexism say that we’re crazy, too much, too emotional, too needy. There is a really intense place ableism and femmephobia come together, the “too needy” “don’t ask for help, you won’t get it” place, that is incredibly dangerous.
Tovah: I admire the way Sins Invalid never assumes an able-bodied audience nor strives to appeal to one. Sins has never been interested in “teaching” able-bodied audiences about disability or claiming, “we’re just like you!”
Patricia: If able-bodied audiences want to learn about disability, they can go read a book. This is not the academy. This is a theater space. One of the reasons I created Sins Invalid was because I needed it. I grew up consuming a ton of media and cultural narratives that made no room for disability. I really needed to see a performance like Sins. I needed to see the types of stories told by Sins performers. It’s necessary to reflect disabled bodies as part of the collective narrative.
Leah: We deserve to have art that is by us and for us and is us being complicated and depicting all our lives as they are, without simplifying or reassuring. I think one of the most important things about Sins is that it’s not for abled people — they can come, but in the words of the great disabled poet Laura Hershey, “Don’t do us any favors.”
Tovah: What role does sex and sexuality play in this show?
Patricia: There’s the idea of the perverted cripple. It’s so tired and so predictable. I’m not against being a pervert. I’m a down pervert! But it’s a trope. It’s either that or we’re sexless. People with impairments do not battle the myth of the virgin or the whore, but a counterpart — are we saints? Or monsters? The reality is that both are ableist projections and we have to go between myth and fantasy to find the truth of what we want and need as people.
Leah: My pieces in the show aren’t erotic the way a lot of folks might think of erotic, but they are sexual because they are me, in a hot dress and a cane, being the midlife crip femme leather witch of color of my dreams. They are me invoking that we all stay alive.
Tovah: What’s next for Sins?
Leah: More sex, more brilliance, more survival, more beyond survival. And more access — I am so proud of how every show has more access. Crip wisdom is in all of our movements.
Sins Invalid‘s Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom plays at the ODC Theater (351 Shotwell Street/17th Street, San Francisco) Friday 10/14 at 8 pm, Saturday 10/15 at 8 pm (ASL interpreted and audio described) at 8 pm and Sunday 10/16 at 7 pm. Tickets are $25 online or in cash at the door. Wheelchair accessible. Scent free. Other information on collective access available from Sins Invalid.