Late last week, I came across a New York Times article that told the story of a Broadway star who spoke up for inclusion. During a matinee performance of his show, “The King and I,” a child with autism became disruptive. After hearing so many other audience members complaining loudly, saying things like, “Why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”, Kelvin Moon Loh (who was one of the performers on stage at the time) felt he needed to speak up.
Kelvin wrote an open letter on his Facebook page that has gone viral:
I am angry and sad.
Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.
That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.
You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.
Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?
The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.
It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?
His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.
Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-
For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.
I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.
And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.
I am so touched that Kelvin took the time to use his voice for good. Not only did he reach out a hand of support to the child and mother who were likely frustrated and embarrassed after the event, but he also surely reshaped some attitudes by speaking out! This is not only a question of compassion, but also a question of respect and appreciation for different perspectives. While some may appreciate the theatre through silent observation, others may have visceral reactions because they are so moved! Who is to say that one way is more right than the other?
I love that Kelvin reminds us that the theater is created for all people. In fact, the WORLD is created for all people. By respecting and appreciating differences in your audience members, he models the appropriate inclusive mindsets that we all should have. Human connection is key. People become “disrupted” when they do not see the human in others.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to Kelvin for pointing this out to so many of your fans. We are honored to share your view on inclusion!
–Written by Elise Hopkins (KIT Blog Editor); letter written by Kelvin Moon Loh.
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.