Music stars and blind cast – People’s World

Left: The Miracle Theater on Market Street in Inglewood, California. Top right: Performers from Theater by the Blind. Bottom right: The empty stage shows the flooring system designed to help blind actors determine their placement and movement. | First two photos courtesy of Greg Shane; third photo by Eric Gordon/People’s World

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – History was made last weekend when a musical about the inventor of the braille alphabet, which premiered in London at the Savory and Charing Cross Theater in 2017, received its US premiere . For those debuts, in a small town in Los Angeles County, a troupe known as Theater by the Blind marked the first time Braille heritage was never performed by a visually impaired cast.

Theater by the Blind is the only theater company for the blind in the country. It was truly humbling to sit in this audience as an entire cast of blind actors and singers, with as many profound challenges as they have in life, unfolded this inspiring story.

ArtsUp! LA directed this production. It is an organization that is dedicated to providing performance opportunities to several underserved communities, the visually impaired for one, youth and veterans for the others. Greg Shane, co-founder and artistic director, directed the show. One can only begin to imagine the sense of accomplishment that everyone involved with this production must feel now that it has wrapped up its all-too-short run. The performing arts can indeed save lives.

It begins with a solo prelude by Ronnie Chism, his original song “Sounds of My Cane”, a fusion of tap and rap. He uses his white cane to set the pace and explains:

Type type. Type type. Type type.
ThisThis is the sound of my staff.
Type type.
Navigating the streets,
See the world through my taps.
Type type.
Since my senses are heightened,
My eyes are my brain.
Type type.
feel me around the world
By the strokes of my cane.

Ironically, except for the presence of a few crude sticks sometimes used as props for the characters, the canes do not appear functionally in the show. To help blind actors walk across the stage and move through scenes with confidence, Shane designed a textured floor system of cushions and rugs to provide performers with the necessary clues to their location in a kind of “floor braille.” “felt through their feet. This allowed the actors to move gracefully and carefree on stage.

Braille heritage is the story of a great mind, Louis Braille (1809-1852), the young blind man who wanted the same luck in life as those who see. Until his day, ordinary blind people without access to class privileges and worldly comforts were often condemned to a life of drudgery and exploitation, sewing or creating basket weaving, for example. In modern times, we know blind people have found mind-boggling jobs stuffing envelopes or, famously in a movie like Slumdog Millionaire, even intentionally blinded and educated in the art of street begging. In many Asian cultures, people who are blind are often referred to careers in massage. At one point in the braille musical, blind people are referred to as “monsters”. Later, when the Institute’s funding is reassessed by the French National Assembly, the President contemptuously asks, “A blind boy who wants to read? You are surely joking.

Historically we know of many accomplished blind people, such as the ancient bard Homer, although in his case it is impossible to know for certain whether he was or not, and later in life the poet John Milton and composers JS Bach and GF Handel, as well as socialist activist Helen Keller (who was also deaf), singers Andrea Bocelli, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, who attended the party. opening of Braille heritage.

Today blind people can succeed in almost any profession they choose now that society has learned to value what they box do as opposed to what they cannot. But it is far from universal. In many cultures, including our own, blind people can still be infantilized and condemned to social isolation.

The original book in French, with lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon and music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray, addressed the theme of “people of the night” and their struggle for independence. The English script is by Ranjit Bolt. The drama centers on the young man Louis Braille (Coco Atama) who comes to Paris from the countryside, already with a solid education and as an excellent organist and musician, enrolling in the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, in the hope of pursuing his aspirations. But the faculty did little to encourage the future of these children. The vast accumulation of human knowledge was largely barred to them if they could not read. Existing and speculative methods of overcoming this handicap were deeply flawed and unworkable. The students of the Institute were considered so unhuman and so useless that the directors thought little of handing them over to charlatans for experiments.

It wasn’t until a friend from the Institute, Gabriel (Julio Hoyos), showed him how to play dice that Braille took inspiration from the six-dot arrangement and configured them in different patterns to represent the letters of the alphabet which, once embossed on paper or another surface, could be read. This discovery brought his people to the doorstep of literacy, and therefore of education and culture. This journey “into the light” is the arc of the musical, punctuated by the romantic relationships that Braille maintained, first with his blind comrade Catherine (Julianna Abbruzzese), who lost her life in one of the ” experiences” of the Institute, and later with Rose (Maliaka Mitchell), a sighted woman who worked with the blind community and fell in love with him. Unfortunately, he died too young, of tuberculosis, having lived long enough, however, to become a teacher at the Institute after his system was finally accepted. And of course, his name lives on.

Coco Atama, playing the role of Louis Braille, was interviewed in a Los Angeles Times feature film leading up to the premiere. “Louis is not this golden, divine figure,” Atama says, but rather “a real person. He has a bit of a temper about him. He is a bit of a know-it-all. stubborn, arrogant, arrogant.

If anything, the musical doesn’t go deep enough into the titular character. We learn next to nothing, for example, about his accomplished musical talent, or that he also adapted his reading system to musical notation. Writing in a European pop-cultural idiom (think The set), the composer could have seized the dice and made more use of this insight in musical terms. A song associating the symbol with the letter could have hit the mark, like the way Stephen Sondheim musicalized the aesthetics of pointillism in Sunday in the park with George, about the French painter Georges Seurat. Needless to say, career teachers at the Institute opposed the Braille system as threatening their own jobs and pride.

A postage stamp depicting Louis Braille issued in 1975 by the German Democratic Republic.

The cast of 14, some of whom have additional disabilities in addition to their blindness, were joined by a group of musicians called Rex & Friends, who recently appeared in the Media Access Awards, led by musical scholar Rex Lewis-Clack not just blind but autistic, who was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes and by the Kinetic Light Company – it was his 27th birthday on June 24. Musical direction was by Laurie Grant. Rex played a keyboard onstage throughout the show, all from memory, of course. Patrick Storey, a member of the band in charge of ‘lead vocals’, played an interesting role, singing lyrics with some of the vocalists from his left position to add to their weight and articulation.

Who better to tell the story of Louis Braille than the people he defended! “Braille heritage will help people understand that being blind is not an obstacle to living a meaningful life,” explains ArtsUp! LA co-founder and executive director Bryan Caldwell. “Access to education, training and programs, coupled with more advanced social acceptance, can better shape the experiences of people with visual impairments.”

The arts have many functions, which go far beyond professional experience and expertise. Performers should be appreciated, as said above, for what they box do, not what they can’t. How many sighted people, after all, could get up there after months and months of dedicated rehearsals and sing and dance and play those roles so convincingly? For me, the stars included Coco Atama, Maliaka Mitchell, Julianna Abbruzzese, Julio Hoyos and Kenny Lee (as Dr Pignier) and Matthew Saracho (as Monsieur Dufau). But the whole company was so lovely and so vital to be seen and heard.

In remarks to the audience after the thunderous standing ovation, Coco Atama thanked his friends and family he acquired through his work with the company for giving him his “reason to go on living”. “Big ideas succeed,” he said, “when others take over.” If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, he said, “Don’t do it alone.”

Keyboardist Rex Lewis-Clack cited the importance of the protagonist’s invention to him: “I learned Braille and I was reading Tolstoy.”

Director Greg Shane introduced Leela Kazerouni, an actress who has been part of Theater by the Blind since its debut 18 years ago. It was “a great trip,” she says. “Take risks. Never give up on your dreams.”

Finally, Shane introduced Stevie Wonder from the audience. “Tonight was so wonderful. Thank you for allowing me to come tonight and see a cast of blind and visually impaired people who will inspire people for years to come. Never let fear put your dreams to sleep. You must continue to do so. We have a broken world and only we who can really see can fix it.


Braille heritage performed at the Miracle Theater on Market St. in Inglewood, but only for two performances, June 24 and 25. A trailer for the show can be viewed here. A detailed article in the Los Angeles Times on the production with moving portraits of the performers by photographer Robert Gauthier can be seen here.


Eric A. Gordon