CP Salon bridges art and disability onstage

Stories about living life with a disability are not standard fare for stage plays. When disability stories do make it to a theatrical production, they rarely feature a performer with first-hand experience of the subject matter.

To illustrate the point, consider the recent Broadway controversy and debate on The New York Times’ Arts Beat blog about casting Abigail Breslin, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, as Helen Keller in the upcoming revival of The Miracle Worker.

Disability activist and performer Kazumi Tsuruoka (right), who studied political science and liberal arts at York University in the 1970s, breaks the mould and controls the sharing of his narrative with the show CP Salon. The production, which Tsuruoka co-created with acclaimed contemporary vocalist Fides Krucker, uses rhythm and blues to tell the love story of a man with cerebral palsy.

CP Salon comes to York for a single performance on Friday, Dec. 4, at 7pm, as part of a Toronto fall campus tour. Co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre and the Graduate Program in Critical Disability Studies, the show plays in the Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre, 139 Centre for Film & Theatre on the Keele campus. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and are available at the door on the evening of the performance.  

The 50-minute production stars singer and storyteller Tsuruoka and pianist Tania Gill. Produced and directed by Krucker, it features 10 songs ranging from original improvisations to Smokey Robinson’s You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me to Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Special guest and York alumna Irina Kagansky (BA Hons. ’06), who joins the show for this tour, appears in a few numbers embodying the love interest Tsuruoka rhapsodizes about, and sings a duet with him.

Tsuruoka’s performance credits include Toronto’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival and the KickstartT Festival of Disability Arts in Vancouver, BC. He is a core member and adviser in Picasso PRO, a long-term project currently in collaboration with Creative Trust, which was formed to facilitate genuine opportunity for artists with disabilities and deaf artists in the performing and media arts.

Gill is a Toronto-based pianist, composer and arranger. She has performed and recorded with a wide range of artists including Anthony Braxton, The Flying Bulgars, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Rheostatics and Eve Egoyan.

Called “as dramatically striking as it was emotionally powerful,” by NOW Magazine theatre critic Jon Kaplan, CP Salon premiered with a weeklong run of a packed house in Toronto in 2004. The show has since toured to Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the Yukon.

CP Salon artfully integrates music, theatre and disability. The current production and tour continues to push the envelope with the goal of bringing together students and faculty in university performing arts and disability studies departments to encourage dialogue on the issue.

Krucker was motivated to create this connection by theologian and sociologist Nancy Eiesland’s groundbreaking book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, which she read on her way to Whitehorse for a performance of CP Salon in 2008. 

“I was inspired by the critical thought applied to the idea of body, brokenness and normalcy, and I realized that some pretty radical thinking was going on within the universities in relation to disability,” Krucker says. “I felt that CP Salon could be an ideal vehicle to promote dialogue between disabilities studies and performance studies, focusing on the lived experience of disability and the artistic expression of that experience, and challenging our assumptions of what a performer should be.”

Tsuruoka agrees with Krucker that the campus tour is an opportunity to extend the performance into wider conversations about performance and embodiment within York’s diverse community. York critical disabilities studies Professor Nancy Halifax concurs, noting that within disability studies, “the performance of varied embodiment centres the disability culture, and bodies that are often perceived as transgressive, appear to question and reimagine the social myths of normalcy."

“My main goal in touring CP Salon is to show that individuals with disability can convey thoughts and feelings through music and performance,” says Tsuruoka. “My disability is me – it is creative, sexual, sensual and expressive.”

CP Salon will be followed by discussions involving the audience, performers and Professors Halifax and Gwen Dobie from the Department of Theatre. Questions such as "What is disability?" and "What is a performer?" will be addressed in small groups before engaging in a larger group conversation, inviting participants to share their knowledge and experience.