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By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
Some say love, music and math are the only truly universal languages. “But living with a disability certainly can be a universal emotional experience,” says Stacey D’Angelo, Director of Phamaly Theatre Company’s international production of “Honk.”
You don’t have to share a language or a culture or a lifestyle or even a hemisphere to truly understand another human being when you both share the challenge of, say, living from a wheelchair or without an vital sense like hearing or sight.
Members of Denver’s acclaimed disability-affirmative theatre company certainly found their common humanity with hundreds of Japanese strangers in February, when they traveled to Tokyo for two goodwill stagings of “Honk” as part of the international True Colors Festival celebrating diversity and inclusion.
“Honk,” a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” brings a contemporary hipness to not being as cool as everyone else. It teaches the gentle message that beauty lies within us, and that being different should be cause for celebration. And that’s a message right out of the Phamaly Theatre Company playbook.
Phamaly’s reason for being is to effect greater inclusion, participation and respect for people with disabilities in all facets of society through their innovative productions, which create performance opportunities for actors with disabilities.
Phamaly opened its 31st season with a two-week run of “Honk” at the Aurora Fox. It was created in collaboration with Japan’s Nippon Foundation, and making the production all the more culturally impactful was the inclusion of two young Japanese actors with disabilities in the cast. When Ken Kanokozawa and Hiroko Higashino traveled to Denver for the making of the show, it was the first time either had been anywhere near Colorado.
Ken Kanokozawa and Sam Barrasso sharing the role of The Cat in ‘Honk!’
Kanokozawa, who is 19 and has hearing loss, was cast to play “The Cat.” And so was Phamaly favorite Sam Barrasso, who is blind. Not to take turns, but instead to play the role together. Kanokozawa played the body of The Cat, while Barrasso, often physically intertwined with him on stage, provided the voice.
“At first, I imagined that we’d switch positions and perform one person at a time,” Kanokozawa said through an interpreter. “But when we began the rehearsal, we were told that it’d be two people, constantly moving at the same time. I was quite surprised.”
But he was up for the challenge.
“At rehearsals, I vocalized my best possible English, and Sam tried her best to speak to me,” Kanokozawa said. “But there were definitely frustrating moments at the beginning where I thought, ‘We can’t communicate.’ Just as Japanese and English have different grammar, spoken languages and sign languages have different grammars as well. However, as we continued to rehearse without relying on words, our feelings started to resonate. As they say, communication doesn’t always have to be spoken. We rehearsed using our body language, and that communicated our feelings.”
Of their performances, Alex Miller of OnStage Colorado wrote: "Together, they realize the character in a way no single actor could. Kanokozawa acts as the cat’s physical expression, articulating the sneaky slinkiness with his lithe body and skilled dance moves along with a panoply of hilarious hand and facial gestures. Along the way, he helps guide Barrasso to her marks while she gives voice to The Cat. Together, they are one, and a more beautiful (and very funny) tandem performance is hard to imagine."
After two weeks at the Aurora Fox, Phamaly embarked on its second-ever international goodwill visit, the first being a 2015 trip to Osaka, Japan, with “The Fantasticks.” This time, the mostly different Phamaly ensemble presented two performances of “Honk” for audiences of more than 1,000 at the Toshima-Ku Art and Culture Theatre in Tokyo.
“I wanted to bring something to Japan that would allow us to have a shared dialogue about what it is to have a disability, and what it is to be different,” said Phamaly Artistic Director Regan Linton, a prominent voice for inclusion in the national theatre community and the only wheelchair-user to lead a major U.S. theatre company.
“We wanted to demonstrate the talent and extraordinary humanity that people with disabilities have, in the same way that people who don’t have disabilities have. I wanted this to be a production filled with joy and talent and love, so that between our countries, and between our cultures, we can all be supporting each other from thousands of miles away.”
The majority of the audience were Japanese people with disabilities. Sign language, audio description and closed-captioning were provided in two languages. Audiences were allowed to meet and talk with the actors.
For D’Angelo (pictured right), one of the most memorable parts of the experience came just before each performance, when visually impaired audience members were allowed to go on stage and take a “tactile tour” of the set, allowing them to get a sense of the world of the play they were about to see through touch.
“I feel so grateful that we were all able to have this positive life-changing experience just before another globally life-changing experience (with COVID),” said D’Angelo, also Director of Theatre at the Community College of Aurora.
Playing the lead role of Ugly was certainly life-changing for Adam Russell Johnson, who is a veteran Phamaly actor living with cerebral palsy.
“I had never been outside of America, and I learned so many things,” Johnson said. “But what I cherish most is the reiteration of a lesson I’ve long held in my heart: People are incredible and kind, and we should all work together to remind ourselves of tolerance, and the dangers of otherness – and spread love.
“When we can do all that through art, it touches so many hearts.”
One of those hearts belonged to a young Japanese girl, who said of Johnson’s performance: “I like the scene in the show where Ugly said that he likes not necessarily comfortable places for himself – but (rather), places where a variety of people live together.”
Video bonus: Phamaly in Japan with 'Honk'
'Honk': Cast list