Writer and performer Susan Nussbaum's solo tour de force, Mishuganismo, is unabashedly political. Though it's certainly about physical disability--perhaps an obvious topic for Nussbaum, who was disabled after an accident 14 years ago and has since dedicated much of her energy to activism in that area--it also encompasses a kind of spiritual disability.
"Mishuganismo" is Nussbaum's term for what happens when a Jewish girl gets a fever for a Latin guy. For her this kind of thing is no mere infatuation but a full-blown syndrome, and she can get so worked up about it that she imagines the emotional devastation that will follow the affair even before the affair itself occurs.
That idea, like much of Mishuganismo, is funny of course, but it's also bleak. For every joke--most of them irreverent, self-effacing jabs at disability and its travails--there's a corresponding underlying jab of pain. Nussbaum may be "well-adjusted" to her situation, but she's still angry, still frustrated, still screaming about the unfairness. "There's no justice," she says, even as she works her ass off for a little slice of it.
Though she focuses on disability, Nussbaum also sees the darkness that comes from sexism, poverty, and big government. For her surviving is not enough, being alive is not enough. For her it's imperative to make a difference. Her way is through socialism. "Socialism is an attempt to live humanely," she says. It's through these teachings that she finds direction and hope. But even when Nussbaum tells us about shouting "No more contra aid" at Senator Alan Dixon's staffers, about traveling to Nicaragua, or about swapping Bible stories with Fidel Castro, she is no wide-eyed fanatic.
"I do solidarity work," she says, then quickly adds that her side hasn't had a lot of success lately. In fact, she confesses, she worries that "half the people I work with would be just as comfortable in the Moonies or the 700 Club."
In many ways, this is Nussbaum's hellish paradox: she's isolated within the solidarity movement because as a disabled woman her experience is ultimately out of reach to most others, no matter how politically progressive or well-intentioned; but she's also unable--because of her disability again--to have even the most private time remain private. One of the funniest but saddest moments in Mishuganismo comes when Nussbaum describes how, after a night of sex, she has to depend on her attendant to pull out her birth control device. Life simply doesn't get more invasive.
Nussbaum is biting, sarcastic, even a little nasty in Mishuganismo, which she performs on a nearly bare stage, her only props a table, a cup, and a loose-leaf notebook. "Even the French "crips' hate Jerry," she says of comedian Lewis and his infamous telethon. But while she insinuates that sometimes there's no choice but to wallow in misery, ultimately she holds out for the light. She says her vision of heaven--though she's a proud atheist--is lots of food and being constantly in love. In her universe heaven and atheism can coexist.
Surely that's pretty romantic stuff. But overall the lusty Mishuganismo is not romantic or sentimental. It is, occasionally, a bit dogmatic about its leftist politics--Nussbaum's style is fairly narrative and the sloganeering isn't couched in dramatic or metaphoric terms. The piece is also somewhat abrupt on occasion; transitions from the personal to the political, from story to story, aren't always as smooth as they could be. A little editing might help, too: even though Nussbaum tells us at the end that all these things connect, saying it doesn't make it so.
In Mishuganismo Nussbaum risks a great deal: a lot of these stories are very intimate. Her snappy "crip" humor is as exploitative as it is daring--but then, why not? And you never get the sense she's bucking for admiration or accolades. Nussbaum's point is pretty straightforward: we're all terribly alone, and terribly dependent. That can be kind of reassuring, but it's also terribly sad.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.