A Review of What’s Left of UsBy Derek Newman-Stille
Performed September 29 at Nozhem Theatre, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Performed by Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon.
Sponsored by Tangled Art + Disability and Nozhem Theatre, Trent University.
Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon describe their performance What’s Left of Us as “Two 2 spirited ndns, with only two hands between them. A gloriously deranged world of dance, storytelling, and the unexpected things that make you sexy”. What’s Left of Us was a beautiful fusion of identities, bringing disability, indigenous, and two-spirited identities together in a way that celebrated the power of movement and narrative for shaping lives, but more than that, this was a tale of resistance and of writing our own stories.
Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon wove multiple tales together in their performance, drawing on the power of polyphony and resistance to a singular narrative. Their performances were about breaking barriers, stretching out into new spaces, and resisting confinement into one story or one space. They began by preparing for their performance in front of the audience, costuming, putting on make-up, eating, practicing shadow puppets, and stretching in front of the audience, breaking down the idea that there is an easy separation between performance and life. They lived performance. They gave chocolate to the audience, walking between audience space and acting space to illustrate that we are all part of and involved in performance.
Many Fingers and Solomon began their official performance by critiquing the music choices on their entrance, playing with the form of theatre and the idea of theatre as something that is always polished. They then burst out onto the stage to circus music, sharing a bicycle and bringing attention to the history of treating disabled bodies, indigenous bodies, and queer bodies as parts of the freak show tradition. They brought attention to the way that people look, the way that people stare, and the fact that performance has always had an interest in the spectacle of different bodily presentations.
Many Fingers and Solomon brought attention to their spirit hands, their smaller left hands with tiny fingers and the way that these hands had shaped a wide variety of emotions, letting their faces show isolation, laughter, fear, strength, and sexual freedom with alternating expressions. They illustrated the way that others tried to tell stories ABOUT them, exploring the power of speech in constructing identity by having loud, clamouring voices of doctors describing their hands in medicalised ways, trying to structure them as flaw. But, while these voices sought to overwhelm them, their bodies moved with passion, responding to what was being said in a way that told the audience “our bodies can speak for themselves, no one should tell our bodies who or what they mean”. Narratives tried to overwhelm them in the performance, but their bodies spoke for themselves, moving in ways that illustrated strength, beauty, and raw sexuality.
Many Fingers and Solomon danced strength into the performance, illustrating the power of their bodies to be capable of speaking for themselves, while narrating their own understandings of themselves to resist the earlier stories of doctors, sharing their own histories – moments of joy, playfulness, change, and journey. Their stories interwove with each other as they shared the similarities between their two lives as people who both have spirit hands, both came from reservations, and both came out as two-spirited people while they moved around the stage, meeting and separating from one another, showing similarities and differences through movement.
Many Fingers tied story and hand together by creating shadow puppets first with his right hand and then switching to his spirit hand. He illustrated the power of hands to speak, to tell their own stories, shaping them up on a screen and creating a dual performance of the stage space that featured Solomon’s movements on stage and Many Fingers’ hand shapes on the projected screen. Many Fingers emphasized the connection of voice and hand by using the light from his cell phone (a symbol of speech) to project the shadows of his hand.
What’s Left Of Us was the most accessible performance I have ever attended, with accessible seats, descriptive audio and ASL interpreters. Not only were interpreters present, but the performance disrupted the normal isolation of the interpreters and the challenge of interpreters being off to the side of the stage (meaning that Deaf or Hard of Hearing audience members would have to divide attention between performance and language interpretation). Instead, interpreters were centre stage, woven into the performance. Many Fingers and Solomon made the space a bilingual one, not separating Deaf space from Hearing space, but illustrating that both were significant by bringing interpreters into their performance space and interacting with them. The interpreters were also able to move with the music and signed in a form of dance, face and body animated in a way that few interpreters are able to accomplish. The interpreters were dance partners in this glorious performance of body and language.
What’s Left of Us was powerful, creating a sense of the ability for those of us who are disabled, LGBTQ2IA, or indigenous to speak for ourselves, to disrupt the simple gaze of the audience and a society that is focussed on staring and remind people of the history of that gaze in the history of performance and medicine. It was a performance that suggested that we can stare back, that we can move from spectacle to spectator, and that we can tell our own stories even while others are trying to narrate our stories for us. This was a performance that was about the power to express.