Crip brilliance transcending the theater
Reviewing Sins Invalid’s 2020 climate-chaos-themed performance
We dedicate this show
to our ancestors,
especially beloved community
members incarcerated in
those lost through
the COVID-19 pandemic,
and the countless others
lost in climate catastrophes.
We dedicate this performance
to all those fighting
for the survival of
and all of her creations.
-Sins Invalid, “We Love Like Barnacles” 2020 Program
Two hundred people, myself included, watched Sins Invalid’s 2020 show from home on October 24th. Seven disabled performers shared their thoughts on climate change and the pandemic. Before now, Sins had only performed to a live theater audience in the Bay Area. The pandemic brought their talent online, giving me direct access to their work as it first entered the world.
I’d watched their documentary twice. I also watched several YouTube videos of their performances (links in this article’s last section). A UC Berkeley graduate student instructor showed me and my classmates their work in 2015. Unfortunately, I moved away from the Bay Area before I could see a live performance. Having a chance to appreciate their work mid-pandemic lifted my spirits. But of course, I still want to see their performances in-person someday.
Before I unpack the performances themselves, I should give some context for this review. After all, Sins Invalid isn’t especially well-known outside of disability justice and crip circles. There’s a lot of obscure history and terminology involved in this movement.
Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and Stacy Milbern launched the first disability justice collective in the early 2000s. All women of color, they wanted a space for bodyminds like theirs to take center stage. So, they joined a few other disabled activists and founded Sins Invalid.
For Sins, “disabled artists” is a broad category. Anyone with a physical, psychological, or cognitive impairment counts. So do people in sensory minorities, such as Blind and Deaf people. And, they include people with chemical injuries and/or chronic illnesses. Watching a Sins performance, you may assume some of the performers are able-bodyminded. But, they could have a disability that isn’t obvious to the typical person.
Artists often address parts of crip existence that we’re told to keep behind closed doors. Many focus on desirability and sexuality. Others address complicated relationships with assistive technologies and accommodations. Still more express the challenges we experience with increasing symptoms, isolation, and stigmatization. Performers bring their undiluted perspectives and support each other’s work. This support sometimes takes place on stage, but it’s even more often behind the scenes.
I should note, before I begin: I identify as a queer crip myself. When I watch Sins performances, I see myself on stage, in ways I never feel represented. This collective is near and dear to my heart, and this review will not use a detached tone. And, while I took notes, I still can’t promise to get 100% of my facts straight. My memory is imperfect, and I’m relying on the program for most of the logistical details.
Sins Invalid showcased twelve performances by seven artists. These were filmed at four theaters and one farm across the United States and Canada. Alex Cafarelli performed from Toronto, Maria Palacios joined from Houston, and Seema Bahl and Nomy Lamm took the stage in Seattle. Lateef McLeod, Bianca I. Laureano, and Antoine Hunter returned to the ODC stage in San Francisco, one of Sins’ more familiar venues. Some performers were new to Sins, while others joined over a decade ago.
It’s impossible for me to pick a few performances to focus on. That’s why it’s taken me a week to write this review. Looking over my notes, though, I only have enough to write in-depth about around half of them. So, I’ll write about those and then include the rest in an “honorable mentions” section.
The Forgotten (Maria Palacios)
Crips can’t afford to live being prepared for the worst
although the worst will always hit us harder…
The truth is, being prepared & being disabled
means mentally prepared
to be abandoned & left to die.
— Maria Palacios, “The Forgotten”
Sins did not choose an image from “The Forgotten” for promotional materials, so the image above captures a later performance. Maria appeared in her chair on stage, mostly in darkness, her outfit off-white. With urgency, despair, and grief, she shared her and her Houston community’s experiences of Hurricane Harvey. The performance’s visual plainness focused attention on her words and emotions.
This performance, the second of the night, hit my partner and I hard. She made the point that crips, disabled folks like us, can’t afford to prepare. Some of us are on fixed incomes and can’t buy extra food. Or we eat our emergency food supplies before a natural disaster. We can’t predict some medical expenses, or other everyday disasters that cut into our finances. Most of us are living in constant isolation and social disaster.
Some of us are lucky. We have actual accommodations, ones we fought hard for. “Privileges” the government and insuance companies and other bureaucracies tried to keep from us. Or we’re Deaf and have a close local network of ASL interpreters who the Deaf community knows and can call on.
And for the same reasons, these disasters will hit us harder. Some people can’t listen to the radio. Some need help to get out of the house. If we can escape, some aren’t able to save all our specialized equipment — sometimes it’s too unwieldy to do alone. A government registry of disabled people doesn’t create a plan to save us. It doesn’t make the crip community even trust the government enough to add our names to the list.
I find myself using the present tense about this particular performance, because it has occupied so much space in my brain for the past week.
Maria brought up someone she knows, who so long after Harvey is still in a nursing home. They lost their accessible housing in the community in the hurricane, and they’re still waiting for a house they can live in. After losses like this, survivors live outside their interdependent communities against their wills.
In nursing homes, they have fewer people making sure they’re safe. They face a higher risk of caregiver abuse/neglect, not to mention COVID-19 exposure. And the able-bodied world expects them to show gratitude for the simple fact that they’re alive. They act as though that’s an act of great charity and not the lowest possible bar to clear. An actual act of great charity would be restoring the living conditions we had pre-disaster as much as possible.
I find myself using the present tense about this particular performance, because it has occupied so much space in my brain for the past week. It feels too real for me and my partner. We keep our wheelchair in the car, partly for convenience and partly so we have it if — God forbid — we ever have to escape with only ourselves, our cat, and our car. We don’t have an accessible vehicle or an accessible apartment, we can’t bring the wheelchair inside anyway.
But in the heat of disaster, would we remember all our medications, electrolyte drink mix, medical records, legal name change orders? Our collection of joint braces, wraps, and similar accommodations? Would disaster recovery volunteers make sure I continued to have access to vegan food? Would I remember my rollator, even if I hadn’t used it in a while?
Could we find a crip friend to take us in? Or would we end up in a shelter, separated because we aren’t related? Not considered a unit because getting married would limit the SSDI benefits my partner might qualify for? Would first responders understand that he is an ambulatory wheelchair user? Could they discern that I’m his partner and also disabled, not his caregiver?
I felt, and feel, for Maria. We are both crips facing climate chaos. We both have reasons to be afraid for our futures, though the specific reasons vary. We could find ourselves in acute disaster zones while already trying to survive in an everyday disaster.
Mourning in Puerto Rican (Bianca I. Laureano)
Bianca brought the audience immediately into her life by telling us that, in early 2017, her mom died while her caregiver was giving her a bath. She never gave the audience any more specific information about how her mother died, instead moving forward in the story. Her mother lived in Puerto Rico. Long before her death, she decided to donate her body to science. As Bianca noted, this decision is not common in Puerto Rico. The islanders distrust academics and authorities. This isn’t surprising, considering the island’s history and (in Bianca’s eyes) present colonial rule by the United States.
At first, Bianca believed she and her sister had given their mom a good death. They had arranged for a university to take her body. One of the people involved allowed Bianca and her sister to have as much time with their mother’s body as they needed, and they took her up on that offer. When they left the campus, they believed a professor would call them within eighteen months. During that call, they would tell them where their mother’s remains were buried.
I hadn’t connected the dots until Bianca reminded the audience that Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico mere months later. My heart sank — I could guess what was coming next. This was three years ago, and as of the performance Bianca had still not heard back from the university. She and her family do not know if or where her mother’s remains are buried.
Bianca highlighted that, after Maria, so many more people shared her experience. The disaster complicated so many hopes for a good death. This comparison weaved her personal and familial narrative of disability, grief, and hope into a broader story. Those themes ran through Puerto Rico’s narrative as it faced dual natural and social devastation.
Since the performance, my partner and I have discussed what we wanted to happen to us after we die. I can’t help but feel that Bianca’s performance at least partly prompted these conversations. After all, she brought up how complicated securing a good death can be in a chaotic world.
Running from the Ecological Wave (Lateef McLeod)
Will my home.
when the sea waters
roll over the green Californian hills?
Is there a safe place
to take refuge.
when the ecological waves
start rushing in?
— Lateef McLeod, “Running from the Ecological Wave
Lateef began this performance in his power chair, an attached tray holding his robotic voice. Like some other crips, he uses an alternative and augmented communication (AAC) device to speak. After he spoke a few lines, another man walked on stage — Christopher. As the performance progressed, Christopher approached and began removing the wheelchair’s attachments. He began with the AAC device, attached to the tray with velcro.
The moment Christopher removed Lateef’s AAC device, I felt as though Lateef had been dismembered in some vital way. The device, the voice, was part of Lateef’s bodymind. The theme that our bodyminds are not only our flesh and blood ran through the performance.
Once the AAC device and tray were out of the way, Christopher supported Lateef as he rose from the chair and took halting steps across the stage. Between steps, Christopher paused behind him. When Lateef took the next step, Christopher followed. In this act, Lateef raised vital questions. Would he need to drag his own body away, with another person’s help if he got lucky, as disaster struck? Would there even be enough time?
Lateef also addressed the human causes of climate change. He connected it to ableism in how capitalism breaks, pollutes, and whips both the land and crip bodyminds into submission. His narration invoked universal interrelation — everything connects to everything else. Thus, when we injure the Earth we injure ourselves.
While at the start of the performance he could navigate without help, as soon as he stood up from the chair, he sacrificed independent mobility. This challenges stories of “miracles” that involve crips rising from their chairs and walking like “normal” people. Lateef showed how, for most wheelchair users, the chair is an integral part of the bodymind.
Like Maria’s “The Forgotten”, Lateef raised questions about crip existence mid-disaster. He questioned whether crips could save assistive devices, medications, and other vital items. While my partner is an ambulatory wheelchair user and I would be able to carry his chair while he walked, I saw my partner and myself in his performance. It reinforced the idea that our skin doesn’t always represent the border of the bodymind. Our very selves can extend to include our adaptive devices.
Untitled (Antoine Hunter)
Antoine, a Deaf dancer, danced to a voiceover. Bianca Laureano wrote the words, while Juba Kalamka read them aloud. This collaboration by three Black crips addressed the continued existence of people like them. My notes for this performance are only quotes, so quotes will structure this review.
“It is our melanin that will keep us alive.”
These words came at the end of the opening lines, projecting Black bodies into the future. They speak to Black resilience and how the embodied experience of having more melanin could be an advantage as the climate changes. In a warmed world, we’d presumably have more sunlight.
“They exclude us because they fear becoming us.”
By this point the focus was on crip existence and the ways able-bodyminded society oppresses us. But, this line can apply to many marginalizations. We see ableism and ageim because our culture promotes a fear of losing functionality. People don’t focus on accessibility if they can’t acknowledge their potential loss of function in the future. White nationalists attempt to “protect” their current and future white children through segregation. Queer- and transphobic adults don’t give children any real education on human gender and sexuality. They believe learning about LGBTQ+ people is a threat to children’s “innocence”. They fear their children becoming like us, believing we have the power to convert them.
“Listening to us requires you to stop lying to yourself.”
These words have so many potential meanings. You have to believe environmental injustice and climate change are real to listen to solutions. If you want to learn from crips, you have to accept that one day, you and your loved ones might become disabled. And when that day comes, you will still be the full people you are today. If you want to listen to anti-racism activists, you have to stop believing in “colorblindness”.
Antoine’s dancing highlighted and accented Bianca and Juba’s words. The lines I highlighted were a few of many phrases that could apply across marginalizations. The performance was full of these short but poignant statements.
Grief Is A Process Of Slow Steps To Accept A Terrible Thing (Alex Cafarelli)
“Trees have care networks, like crips have care networks, intricate webs of mycorrhizal fungi transmitting messages from mama olive tree to sapling along mycelial networks of underground root systems.”
— Alex Cafarelli, “Grief Is A Process Of Slow Steps To Accept A Terrible Thing”, 2020
Alex’s second performance of the night, the first act after intermission, was also the only performance outdoors. The location itself highlighted how queer crips interact with nature — a topic theorists such as Eli Clare engage with in their writings. Their knee brace was no more notable than any other piece of technology in the performance (the shovel, wheelbarrow, etc). Assistive technology is assistive technology, whether for abled or disabled people.
They addressed how Canada is a settler colony, and spoke about land stewardship as a career landscaper. During COVID-19, their mental health benefited from having one thing they could continue doing as the entire world changed. Yet, we were left to consider how access to land mid-pandemic is a privilege, one I’m grateful to share as I work three hours per week on my campus’s organic farm.
The piece turned as they acknowledged that their individual work hadn’t stopped the globe from warming. They experienced heat stroke at work for the first time in the past year or two. We, the audience, sat in the reality that the environment can, and does, kill. While the chaos of hurricanes and wildfires hasn’t reached Toronto, the heat is pervasive, omnipresent, lethal.
Near the performance’s end, they sang a Hebrew-language song — emphasizing their Jewish roots. Then, they began to pray to the mycelial networks of mycorrhizal fungi. They prayed for wildflowers to grow across the continent, for ecosystems and habitats to be preserved and restored.
With each new request, I started to realize the power of this form. While Alex directed the prayer to the fungi, their audience was a network of crips and accomplices who could help some of these things happen. We were connected through an invisible network through which we exchange messages, resources, and care. These networks can help bring Alex’s prayers into reality, too.
Crip Prophecies (Maria Palacios)
Ableism makes sure crips express appreciation. Ableism taught us to be grateful for whatever leftovers we get. Ableism tells us it’s our fault, and we believe those lies while keeping the reality of piss, shit, blood + sores to ourselves.
-Maria Palacios, “Crip Prophecies”, 2020
This performance, like “The Forgotten”, focused attention on Maria’s words and expressions. She used “they say” as a rhetorical device. Each statement noted the ways abled society demeans and excludes us. This was one of the most radical pieces in the show, and it was the last performance before the finale.
She warned that, if dominant society as it is today had its way, crips wouldn’t survive. Crips of color could face extermination. White crips would end up hidden away, protected from death by our whiteness. But, she argued, this could never come to pass — because crips know how to survive. It’s impossible to extinguish us because we already live in a society that did not mean for us to survive.
The fact that we have survived, that we continue to form community, is evidence that we are not extinguishable in Maria’s eyes. These arguments resemble what some Indigenous writers believe — that Indigenous life is already post-apocalyptic.
Several other elements of Maria’s prophecy stood out to me. At one point, she called crips the “final evolution” of humans — a radical and subversive statement, flipping eugenic beliefs on their head. Rather than seeing us as inherently lesser or inferior, Maria argues that we are in many ways greater and superior.
Everyone’s body is different, and some bodies end up subjugated due to those differences. Surviving in those circumstances requires a resilience that proves our worth. As Maria argued, the skills we have as crips will be necessary for everyone to survive climate chaos. We know how to live in a constant state of disaster.
And on a personal note, Maria spoke to the phenomenon of duct-taping wheelchairs. She framed it as a signal of crip resilience and resourcefulness. My partner and I both felt like she was talking to us. We bought a wheelchair from Goodwill a few months ago, and duct tape secures the arm rests to the rest of the chair. That’s all we can afford for now, and my partner needs a wheelchair — whether a doctor believes that yet or not.
“Crip Prophecies” was both politically relevant and personally relatable. It served as a powerful closing act to We Love Like Barnacles.
Yes, this includes every other act in the show. Untraditional? Definitely. But every crip who performed blew me away in a different way. These are simply the ones I couldn’t write as much about.
“Mistress Asthma” (Alex Cafarelli)
Alex opened the show with a BDSM-influenced performance depicting asthma as a dominatrix of sorts. This fit into a tradition of queer folks proudly playing the villain. Mistress Asthma later revealed herself to be the supervillain embodiment of climate chaos. She drew connections between fires in the rain forests (the earth’s lungs) and how asthma can make you feel like your lungs are burning.
Bringing the piece to a close, Alex as Mistress Asthma used an inhaler as a prop on stage to emphasize the theme of interconnection. They punctured the boundaries between the villain and the victim. This is the relationship humans have to ourselves — we are our own worst enemies in fighting climate change. Their themes, aesthetics, and styles seemed especially relevant in this moment. Where I live, we had one continuous week of smoke in September, amid an ongoing respiratory pandemic.
Altar to Dead Puerto Ricans (Bianca I Laureano)
Bianca opened this performance asking when climate change became a reality for the viewer. I pictured the 2018 IPCC report, signalling my own privilege: before that point, I hadn’t considered how climate change would affect me. But this was not the central point of Bianca’s performance. Like her earlier “Mourning in Puerto Rican,” this piece focused on the ways colonization and climate chaos interact.
She honored the crips who died months after Hurricane Maria because they had no access to care. The ones with families in the mainland United States, unable to contact or support them directly after the power grid collapsed. The ones who only heard from relatives through friends on the island. The ones who needed help and couldn’t get it quickly enough to survive.
I felt the fear of being left behind, but I also understood that I cannot fully relate. I have never experienced a colonial government completely abandoning my homeland in such a horrible crisis. Yet, in this political climate, I’m approaching to a similar understanding.
Tientos (Seema Bahl & Nomy Lamm, & Maria Palacios)
This performance opened with spoken-word poetry, then became a multi-part musical performance. Unfortunately, due to my auditory processing challenges and brain fog, I did not catch most of the performance — I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Nomy Lamm joined Seema and the guitarist on stage, using her cane and the top of her detached prosthetic leg as a percussion instrument. Utilizing this assistive technology in more than one way represented part of crip culture. We often prefer our bodyminds’ technological extensions to have more functions. For example, my partner likes wearing his wheelchair gloves before he’ll need them. They’re warm and fashionable.
Guajiras (Seema Bahl)
In this piece, Seema opened a conversation with Maria Palacios about their cultural histories. Maria danced flamenco in Houston while Seema spoke and sang in Seattle.. She emphasized how we desire moments when we can exist freely, often through organizations like Sins Invalid. While Maria danced, we had to grapple with flamenco’s complex, colonialism-laced history. These two women cripped and politicized flamenco, fitting it into their justice-oriented framework.
Climate Chaos (Bianca I. Laureano)
In this performance, Bianca took the stage while Juba Kamalka’s voiceover played. He read a poem titled “The Infected Planet” by Wrath, written for the show. It connected the disease processes associated with AIDS and the geological processes. Ultimately, he concludes that he is not dying but being born as a planet.
Honey (Nomy Lamm)
Nomy’s performance directly challenged anti-fat bias and ableism. The lyrics of “Honey” crafted a perfect juxtaposition of luxury and collapse. They compared extraction from the Earth via fracking to extraction of our bodyminds via unjust labor practices. And, addressing other queer crips like themself, they acknowledged what it’s like to be hated and to find pleasure in collapse.
After “Crip Prophecies”, Sins Invalid co-founder and current director Patty Berne spoke to the current moment. They reminded us that it’s okay to recognize this as a nightmare, as long as we’re remembering that we will survive.
When Patty finished speaking, dozens of other Sins collaborators came on screen. Each spoke their own words before they all said, “I will fight for you. Will you fight for me?”. These, the last words in the show, were exactly what I needed. They launched me back into the fight for survival as a proud crip.
If you’re interested in these topics…
To learn more about Sins Invalid and disability justice, check out any of the links below.
Disability Justice, a working draft by Patty Berne
sick woman theory by Johanna Hedva
Wherever You Are Is Where I Want To Be: Crip Solidarity by Mia Lingus
Access is for Everyone: Interview with Patty Berne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid by Lindley Mease
This is Disability Justice by Nomy Lamm
CripStory, Maria Palacio’s blog
Videos of Eli Clare’s work (first video & first poem starting at 10:05, content warning: sexual violence
No Body is Disposable: A Disability Justice Video Series
Sins Invalid video clips:
Sins 2007, a short documentary
A New Road Home by Nomy Lamm, a short song
Rodney Bell, Sins Invalid performance 2008
Nomy Lamm, Sins Invalid performance 2009
Maria Palacios, Sins Invalid performance 2009
Leah Lakshmi, Sins Invalid performance 2009, parts 1, 2, & 3, content warning: sexual violence