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Willing and Able 

Actors David Harrell and Julia Leggett plan to change minds about developmental disabilities

Raleigh Ensemble Players' guest artist David Harrell sees it this way: "After everything that happens in the first four minutes of this show, if you're still thinking about my hand, I'm just not doing my job."

Harrell plays Adam, as in the biblical, absolutely original cast, in Raleigh Ensemble Players' upcoming production of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. But creation in this addled departure from the book of Genesis begins with Adam and Steve and Mabel and Jane, the first gay and lesbian couples in the Garden of Eden. Then it follows their unanticipated descent into postmodern times. Paul Rudnick's hellzapoppin' comedy places the heavens and the earth in the hands of a god who thinks she's a better than average stage director--or vice-versa--in a ribald send-up of belief, logic, sex and human relationships.

In other words, it's not the easiest sell for a Raleigh audience. And one thing more: David Harrell doesn't have a right hand. He never did. He was born without one.

But Harrell's betting that won't matter after the first four minutes. Judging by his track record, it's not a bad bet: In all of his reviews, exactly one critic has mentioned his physical disability. The rest were busy dealing with the velocity and venom of his roles as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire or Iago in Othello.

The N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities has funded his residency at REP. Its ambitious goal is to support Leggett's work in Story, and give him time to write a one-person show. The grant also funds regional actor Julia Leggett's work for the theater as its disabled community outreach director. Regional children still remember Leggett's work in the title role of Jelly Educational Theater's original production of Wheelchair Dancer in 1997. Since then, audiences have seen her experimental choreography in the dance-theater piece Rebirth. In October, she was a featured soloist in an environmental dance work commissioned by the American Dance Therapy Association for their annual convention.

The two plan to change a lot of minds about developmental disabilities. But before that could happen, Harrell first had to change artistic director Glen Matthews' mind. When both were at the University of Southern Mississippi, Matthews cast Harrell in a production of The Swan. A humorous interpretation of the title character got Harrell a callback, and the chemistry between him and the female lead sealed the deal.

Harrell was looking in Matthews' production journal recently. "In it he wrote, 'If you would have told me six months ago I would have cast a one-handed man as the Swan, I would have laughed.'" Harrell says. "But I was able to come in with a different perspective and I changed his mind. And he told me so.

"That sort of defines the journey I've been on. I just want the opportunity to bring my interpretation, bring my craft into it. My creativity has nothing to do with my disability, and vice versa."

Harrell says he did go through a time when he wanted an artificial hand, however. "But it was so cumbersome, so heavy," he says. "I couldn't play baseball or football with an artificial hand, but I could without it. I never really thought I was particularly disabled. ... All I had to do was figure out another way to get things done. ... I resisted the labels the doctors put on me."

At times Leggett has also struggled with the labels placed on her. Though born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that made her bones and joints too flexible to support her weight, she wasn't diagnosed with it until 1996. "When I was just diagnosed I was unsure if I wanted to claim that title--disabled," she says. "By then I'd already been labeled all my life, as an outsider, as an artist, and I'd become very comfortable with them. But this was different."

Recently, working on a new theater and dance piece--about labels--Leggett was surprised to find she wanted to be recognized as "disabled."

"That label gives me so much power," she says. "Now, I can effect change."

Both Harrell and Leggett are interested in making participation in performing arts a reality for people with disabilities. They're developing classes in the creative process for disabled people, and advocating for increased opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, they're leading by example, on stage, at REP. Friday's opening night production will be sign-language interpreted for the deaf and audio-described for the visually impaired, in a theater completely accessible for patrons in wheelchairs and their guests. In an integrated theater, that's as things should be. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

  • Actors David Harrell and Julia Leggett are out to change people's minds about developmental disabilities

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