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Since my Mum received her blue ‘disabled’ badge through the post when I was about seven-years-old, I have, admittedly, always taken that word for granted. As a child, I could probably be forgiven for not considering the nuance of my mother’s condition and how she feels about being labeled ‘disabled’, but perhaps not anymore.
We Ask These Questions of Everybody is a verbatim audio performance, with music by Amble Skuse and words by Toria Banks, that profoundly articulates the lived physical and emotional nuance surrounding disability, while exposing the dehumanising structures of society as the real disabling forces upon the body.
The form interchanges between an operatic, sung exchange between Hannah (Steph West) and her nurse, Lynn (Victoria Oruwari) carrying out a benefit assessment, and more candid recorded discussions between a disabled ensemble. Heightened and formal in both content and form, Hannah’s assessment contrasts yet converses with stark callousness against the collaged humanity of the ensemble’s spoken word.
With colloquialisms and fillers included, Banks’ text dangles humanity and snatches it away with the skilled delivery in a critique of how we hear (or don’t hear) the varied perspectives of disabled lives. The questions asked are cold and clinical, measuring meticulously in weeks or metres walked in an attempt to reduce Hannah’s struggle down to a metric of misinterpretation.
The recorded voices that make up the ensemble moments are spliced, sampled and remixed in a very material way. With text cut and pasted in various different places, new meaning and mood is continuously developed with a stirring musicality.
Despite the piece being primarily aural, there is also a visual offering of creative captioning. Animated words materialise over crumpled paper in what reads as a surgical un-scrunching of each throw-away bias or assumption the audience may have formed, as we’re gifted the opportunity to scrutinise our views. In addition to this, words are also typed out into email drafts or text conversations as on-record acts of reaching out.
Skuse’s composition is consistently atmospheric and subtle. With smooth and sombre classical instrumentation punctuated with staccato synth or percussive clicking, the score builds just enough of its own intrigue in conversation with the text.
As an audio piece, it’s interesting that We Ask These Questions of Everybody actively disembodies the voices that make it up, risking a generalisation of body and experience. The only theatrically embodied moment is an episode of audience participation, where we’re asked to ‘dance’ the movements asked of Hannah to demonstrate her mobility in a choreography of proof. Making a hugely emotional impression, the piece might benefit from more of these highly relevant moments dramatically rooted in body and space.
“Fuck resilience!”, says one of the ensemble, as the piece is laced with an on-going call-to-action: for a world that isn’t built for disabled bodies to start reframing productivity and moulding itself around them, rather than the other way around. “I’m not outside of society, because society by definition is like, all the people.”, says another, and I’m called to remember we are all responsible for, and will benefit, from this change. With that message in mind, We Ask These Questions of Everybody lights the beginnings of a brutally detailed musical stage for voices and bodies that need to be seen and heard.
We Ask These Questions of Everybody is available on demand as part of Sound Festival 2021 from 30th January to 28th February. For more information, see the We Ask These Questions of Everybody website.