Thorin takes cool Warhol-like photographs of Life Cereal, lays down the law as the fashion police, and is constantly asked by strangers for hugs. He’s also a kid with Down syndrome. The adventure of adopting and raising Thorin is the poignant and refreshingly funny heart of Not Always Happy, a live storytelling performance written and performed by his mom, local writer Kari Wagner-Peck. Her one-woman show runs for one week only as part of the Portland Stage Studio Series, under the direction of Bess Welden.
Wagner-Peck began Not Always Happy as a blog in 2010. “As a parent of a child who has Down syndrome,” she says, “I was troubled by much of what was ‘out there’ about children with Down syndrome.” Much of what she found included, as she puts it, “grief-filled narratives by parents who have a child with Down syndrome — and how their own acceptance of their child was proof of their worth.” She found this “parent-centric” perspective problematic. “I wanted to offer a view of a child who had Down syndrome that was like any child's life: complex, thoughtful, smart, funny, wise and painful.” So Wagner-Peck chronicled her own often irreverently comedic experiences on her blog, a typical son, and a memoir adapted from the blog’s stories was published this May. Then, this past summer, for PortFringe-17, Wagner-Peck teamed up with Welden to present her story onstage — a show that won the “PortFringe Pulitzer Prize” for excellence in writing.
Welden says she was first drawn to Wagner-Peck’s stories in 2013, when she heard about her high-profile confrontation with Chuck Klosterman, then the “Ethicist” of the New York Times. Wagner-Peck wrote Klosterman an open letter condemning his use of “the R-word” — “retard” — as an insult, and asked him to explain the ethics of its use. (The letter went viral, and Klosterman not only apologized, but donated $25,000 to an organization serving the cognitively disabled.) “My immediate reaction was this woman is one fierce mama, not afraid of conflict or controversy,” says Welden. A year or so later, Welden asked Wagner-Peck whether she’d ever considered telling her stories out loud. “I had a intuition,” she says,“ that her writing, full of unfiltered candor, swearing, and truly hilarious anecdotes, would translate effectively into an engaging on-stage voice.”
The resulting show is made up of 13 stories from Wagner-Peck’s “parenting journey,” as she uses donut holes to get facetime with DHHS caseworkers, witnesses the shocking use of restraints on her son in a preschool classroom, and uses superhero analogies to explain to Thorin that he has Down syndrome. Onstage, these anecdotes will be told in a different sequence each night, as audience members are enlisted to choose an object from the set — a cupcake, an action figure — then hear the story about Thorin it represents. And Thorin himself (now eleven) contributes to the production through his photography, which will be projected throughout the show. The two collaborators have come to call Wagner-Peck’s genre of performance “social justice storytelling,” says Welden, who believes that the power of hearing personal stories can help us understand the world and the people around us “in a more considered way.”
Part of this deeper understanding can come through commonality. “I want the audience to think: ‘None of that is much different from what we experience,’” says Wagner-Peck, and adds that audiences might be surprised at how often they laugh during Not Always Happy. “This is not a sad story. It is an entertaining story,” she says. “Social justice storytelling can be funny — and angry and subversive. I think audience members will be moved by the truth — we have all had some painful, sharp moment where we didn't feel we belonged.”
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