‘The Braille Legacy’: Musical stars an all-blind cast
Left: The Miracle Theater on Market Street in Inglewood, Calif. Top right: Performers of the company Theatre 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 that first premiered in London at the Savory and Charing Cross Theatre in 2017, received its American premiere. For this debut, in a small city in Los Angeles County, a troupe known as Theatre by the Blind marked the first time The Braille Legacy has ever been performed by a visually impaired cast.

Theatre by the Blind is the nation’s only blind theatre company. It was truly humbling to sit in that audience as an entire cast of sightless actors and singers, with as many profound challenges as they have in life, unfolded this inspiring story.

Arts Up! LA brought this production to realization. It’s an organization devoted to providing performance opportunities to several underserved communities, the visually impaired for one, youth and veterans for others. Greg Shane, cofounder and artistic director, helmed the show. One can only begin to imagine the sense of accomplishment all concerned with this production must be feeling now that it’s concluded its all too short run. Performing arts can indeed save lives.

It starts 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 rhythm and expounds:

Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
Thats the sound of my stick.
Tap tap.
Navigating the streets,
See the world through my taps.
Tap tap.
Since my senses are heightened,
My eyes are my brain.
Tap tap.
Feeling me around the world
Through the taps of my cane.

Ironically, except for the presence of some crude sticks used at times as props for the characters, canes do not functionally appear in the show. To help blind actors traverse the stage and walk through scenes confidently, Shane devised a textured floor system of pads and mats to provide performers the necessary clues about their location in a kind of “floor Braille” felt through their feet. It allowed the actors to move gracefully and unselfconsciously on stage.

The Braille Legacy is the story of a great mind, Louis Braille (1809-1852), the blind young man who wanted the same chance in life as those who see. Until his time, ordinary blind people without access to class privilege and worldly comforts were often consigned to lives of drudgery and exploitation, sewing or creating basketry, for example. In modern times we know of blind persons finding mind-deadening work stuffing envelopes or, famously in a film like Slumdog Millionaire, even being intentionally blinded and educated in the arts of begging on the street. In many Asian cultures, blind people are often steered toward careers in massage. At one early point in the Braille musical, blind people are referred to as “freaks.” Later, when funding for the Institute comes under reevaluation by the French National Assembly, the president scornfully asks, “A blind boy who wants to read? Surely you’re joking.”

Historically we know of many accomplished blind people, such as the ancient bard Homer, although in his case it’s impossible to know for sure if he was or not, and in later life the poet John Milton and composers J.S. Bach and G.F. 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 opening night performance of The Braille Legacy.

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

The original French book, with lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon and music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray, tackled the topic of “the people of the night” and their fight 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 sound education and as a fine organist and musician, enrolling at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, hoping to further his aspirations. But the faculty provided little by way of encouragement for these children’s future. The vast accumulation of human knowledge was largely off-limits to them if they could not read. The existing and speculative methods of overcoming this disability were deeply flawed and unworkable. Students at the Institute were considered so less-than-human and so expendable that the directors thought little about handing them over to quack doctors for experiments.

It was not until a friend at the Institute, Gabriel (Julio Hoyos), showed him how to play dice, that Braille became inspired by the arrangement of six dots and configured them in different patterns to represent the letters of the alphabet that, when embossed on paper or some other surface, could be read. That discovery led his people to the gates of literacy, and thus to education and culture. This journey “into the light” is the arc of the musical, punctuated by loving relationships that Braille had, first with his fellow unsighted student Catherine (Julianna Abbruzzese), who lost her life to one of the Institute’s “experiments,” and later with Rose (Maliaka Mitchell), a sighted woman who worked with the blind community and fell in love with him. Sadly, he died all too young, from 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, performing the role of Louis Braille, was interviewed in a Los Angeles Times feature leading up to the premiere. “Louis is not this golden, godlike figure,” Atama says, but rather “a real person. He has a bit of a temper on him. He is a bit of a know-it-all. He can sometimes be very prideful, stubborn, cocky, arrogant.”

If anything, the musical doesn’t go deeply enough into the titular character. We learn almost nothing, for example, about his accomplished musicianship, nor that he also adapted his reading system to music notation. Writing in a European pop-cultural idiom (think Les Mis), the composer could have seized on the dice and made more of that insight in musical terms. A song associating symbol to letter might have been a knockout, similar to the way Stephen Sondheim musicalized the esthetic of pointillism in Sunday in the Park with George, about the French painter Georges Seurat. Needless to say, the careerist teachers at the Institute opposed Braille’s system as threatening their own jobs and pride.

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

The cast of 14, some of whom have additional disabilities apart from their blindness, were joined by an ensemble of musicians called Rex & Friends, who recently appeared in the Media Access Awards, led by Rex Lewis-Clack, a musical savant not only blind but autistic, who has been profiled on CBS’s 60 minutes and by the Kinetic Light Company—it was his 27th birthday June 24. Musical direction was by Laurie Grant. Rex played an onstage keyboard throughout the show, all from memory, of course. Patrick Storey, a member of the band charged with “lead vocals,” played an interesting part, singing lyrics along with some of the singers from his post stage-left to add to their heft and articulation.

Who better to tell the story of Louis Braille than the very people he championed! “The Braille Legacy will help people understand that being blind is not an impediment to living a full meaningful life,” explains ArtsUp! LA cofounder and Executive Director Bryan Caldwell. “Access to education, training, and programs coupled with more advanced social acceptance can do better to shape the experiences of those with impaired vision.”

The arts have many functions, in this case extending well beyond professional experience and expertise. The performers have to be appreciated, as said above, for what they can do, not what they cannot. How many sighted persons, after all, could get up there after months and months of dedicated rehearsals and sing, dance, and act these roles so convincingly? For myself, the standouts included Coco Atama, Maliaka Mitchell, Julianna Abbruzzese, Julio Hoyos, Kenny Lee (as Dr. Pignier), and Matthew Saracho (as Monsieur Dufau). But the whole company was just so lovable and so vital to be seen and heard.

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

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

Director Greg Shane introduced Leela Kazerouni, an actress who has been with Theatre by the Blind since its beginning 18 years ago. It’s been “a great journey,” she said. “Take chances. Never give up your dreams.”

Finally, Shane introduced Stevie Wonder from the audience. “This has been such a wonderful night. Thank you for allowing me to come tonight and see a cast of blind and partially sighted people that will inspire people for years to come. Never let fear put your dreams to sleep. You must continue to do it. We have a broken world and only we who can really see can fix it.”

Amen.

The Braille Legacy played 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. An extensive article in the Los Angeles Times about the production with soulful portraits of the performers by staff photographer Robert Gauthier can be seen here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

Comments

comments