An Interview with Sins Invalid Performer: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

In anticipation for Sins Invalid’s first full length show since 2011, Grad Assistant Alex Locust spoke with some of the artists showcased in the event. In this interview, he asks Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, an Oakland-based queer Sri Lankan writer, performer and teacher, about her experiences of crip wisdom, performing alongside other disabled artists, and disability as a creative force. Tickets are on sale now for Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom on the weekend of October 14, 15, & 16. Check out the other interview we did with Maria Palacios about her perspective on performing with Sins Invalid here!The faces of Patty Berne, a Haitian/Japanese femme woman wearing a black headscarf with white floral patterns, looking seriously at the viewer with her brows raised, and Neve Bianco, a younger Black genderqueer femme with a delicate facial tattoo between their brows, smiling, checking out the viewer and arching one brow, floating in front of a purple/blue/green starry sky. In between them are the words, "BIRTHING, DYING, BECOMING CRIP WISDOM. save the date: Sins Invalid 2016 Performance, October 14, 15, 16, ODC Theater San Francisco A poster for the upcoming Sins Invalid performance: Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom  Alex: Can you tell us more about the inspiration for the title of the event?

Leah: I think it came out of a lot of ways in which we, as Sins and elsewhere in disability justice community and movement, wanted to celebrate and lift up how we are growing crip wisdom, individually and collectively, as disability justice movements and communities grow. We've been building for a while and we can go beyond some of the 101 to really speaking about our knowledge base.
 
 When I first saw Sins in 2008, I was 33.  I'm 41 now. That's a big difference in life cycles, especially because, due to ableism and abuse, I had kind of a delayed adolescence in my early 30s. As a 41 year old, I am both amazed that I made it this far, as someone who thought she was going to die at 25 because of depression, PTSD, abuse and a lot of oppression, and it made me feel really wondering both about, damn, I made it, and, what does it mean to be a middle aged crazy, chronically ill femme of color writer?  Who are my role models? If I write my life, how do I write it?
I have younger disabled of color writers referring to me as an "elder" now, which is wild to me, and also hurts because it means we don't know our older elders because of ageism and ableism hiding them from us.
We talked a lot about crip life cycles- what does it mean to be a baby crip, a young crip, a middle aged crip, a crip elder?  Especially because as disabled people we are either infantilized or told we're not going to live. All of these experiences of crip life cycles are crip experiences that are barely spoken of or had performance done about- like everything Sins does work around. And in true Sins form, we're gonna perform about them, beautifully and complicatedly.
 
Leah gazes into the camera, pink lipstick popping vibrantly on their lips, and Frida Kahlo earnings dangling from their ears. A portrait of Sins Invalid performer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha[/caption]
A: In your words, what does "crip wisdom" mean to you and why do you believe it is an important topic to introduce to your audiences?
 
L: I think many people - disabled and abled - don't have a sense of the rich wisdom disabled, sick, Deaf and neurodivergent people possess. The ableist imagination can only see us as burdens or supercrips who are just like abled people or people who are broken or faulted.
But disabled folks are the most brilliant folks we know, both in the ways we navigate an ableist colonial reality and the ways in which we create beautiful new worlds and forms of resistance.
This is true for disabled, sick, Deaf and/ or neurodivergent folks to get to witness and be reminded of- because we have so many forces of ableist evil telling us we're awful. And it's true for the able bodied so they can wake the fuck up!
 
A: What can the audience expect from your performance...give us a teaser?!
 
L: My piece, "Crip Magic Spells," comes from several places in my life. It's partially from my own practice and identity as a disabled femme of color witch and intuitive healer, thinking about how often I have used magic to keep myself alive, remind myself of my power and inherent goodness, and navigated my PTSD, as well as ableism, racism and oppression, how I feel like my and our disabled lives are a spell we are writing into existence.  It also comes from some experiences hanging out with friends who are newly disabled, or newly identifying as disabled. For a while, it felt like I was the only femme of color with fibro that a lot of folks in some of my communities knew, so I would get a lot of Facebook messages from strangers asking for help navigating chronic illness and ableism, and find myself saying the same things, like, "Your able bodied friends are going to stop calling, Accessaride is always late, bedlife is better than you think, you should quit smoking but I understand if you can't, prepare for shit to go wrong or a lot slower than you think- and, there's so much beauty waiting here."
I consistently see crips mentoring new crips in this beautiful, chaotic, struggle-filled world of being disabled and dealing with ableism. I often joke about "welcome to crip club, it's like fight club but, uh, different."
As I become middle aged, this only deepens. So my piece shares some of the lifegiving crip tips and wisdom I've learned, been taught and passed down over the years. Finally, in the wake of several people in my community killing themselves over the past several years, out of my own struggles with suicidality and with the public discourse around disabled Black teenager Jerika Bolen's decision to kill herself, it's also an invocation to other crips to live. I've been joking that I sound like the "crip voice of God" because in rehearsals, this BOOMING VOICE I'd never heard before came out of me!
 
My second piece comes from one of the guiding questions for the show, about how coming into disabiltiy identity affected the ways in which we imagined our gender identities. I wrote a piece specifically about how my disabilities have been intertwined with my queer, nonbinary femme identity, and specifically about how class interplays with all of them. It's about toughness and vulnerability. It's also a love poem to my partner, who is also a queer disabled femme of color and who has taught me so much about the power of disabled femme of color bodies.
 
A: Sins Invalid consistently sets a high bar for creating accessible and inclusive spaces for their performances. Can you speak more on what levels of accessibility will be involved in this piece (both for the audience and for yourselves as performances)?
 
L: Expect to as always see a beautifully multiple-disabled audience, with tons of wheelchair and scooter seating, fragrance free seating and community requests, a chill/ low stim room, ASL and audio description on Saturday, no one turned away for lack of ability to pay, ever. I always feel like the Sins audience is the world to come that I want.
 
In term of for me, well, I'm not wearing heels anymore!  This year when the access needs email came, it made me reflect on how much I've changed in the past 7 years of working with Sins. The 2009 show was the first show I'd ever been at that had an access checkin for performers. It blew my mind, but I totally was like, "Uh, I have fibro but it's no big deal, it's fine,  I guess I need a chair, whatever."  And then I saw all these disabled artists clearly ask for what they needed, and my head exploded. I didn't know it was possible. And I kind of tentatively put my hand up and was like, uh, maybe there's this other thing I need?  That experience changed my life. It made me bring centralizing access to every arts space I work in, and frankly, it made settling for inaccessible arts spaces a lot less possible - I went on a pretty gruelling, inaccessible tour right after and was like, I can't do this, and it's not just about me, this isn't good for anybody.  This year, 7 years later, I'm able to say, "Hey, I have cognitive differences that make memorizing a 7 page piece difficult, let's talk about that"
 
A: So much of disability work is focused on provision of services through a narrow lens of disability as a limiting condition. Like at the Longmore Institute on Disability, Sins Invalid really celebrates the creative force that disability generates. Can you describe the importance of promoting disability culture in order to fight for equity and justice?
 
L: I think Patty once said something like, she could do a million workshops, or she could make a piece of performance art that dealt with folks dreams and nightmares about disability and fucked their shit up and turned them inside out- and she was doing the latter with Sins.  I believe that. I also believe, and have written, about the stage as prefigurative politics- that we don't control many parts of systemic power, but we can control a stage, and in doing performance as disabled, queer POC, both what we create on the stage and what we create in the theater can become a temporary autonamous disability justice zone, that shows us the world we want to come, the world disabled QT/POC are making already.
 
Leah is pictured looking serene among a flowering tree A portrait of Sins Invalid performer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
 
A: You have travelled the nation with Mangos with Chili, a troupe of queer and trans people of color performing artists. We noticed an abundance of films submitted to Superfest this year about people with disabilities traveling. Can you share with us your best crip travel story?
 
L: I think the best that comes to mind was when we brought Mangos to Toronto, one of my hometowns, and a strong locus of disability justice arts organizing. The show happened on my 39th birthday, and it meant so much to bring Mangos to Toronto, and to bring it to a strongly accessible space- with Toronto's vibrant queer Deaf, HOH and signing community showing up, tons of chair users and cane users,  where my chronically ill femme friend of color could watch burleque while nursing her kid because there was a dedicated childcare space adjacent, where we drove to the venue with the accessible toilet seat around someone's neck because we were packing a lot of stuff into the cab. It was incredible to bridge Bay Area QTPOC arts community and Toronto disabled QTPOC arts community.
 
I think my other story comes from a time when we were booking a theater space and I asked if the stage was wheelchair accessible, and they were like "totally!" We get there, there's this beautifully made ramp from the green room to the stage, it's awesome, we're all excited. Two years later we're booking there again and I  don't ask about accessibility because they have the ramp, right? We get there- the ramp is gone. I'm aghast, I'm like, what did you do? And they very earnestly explained that they'd built the ramp for us two years ago because we'd asked about accessibility, and then they'd torn it down after the show because we weren't there anymore. Like, obviously, no one else would need a ramp ever, ramps don't help the able bodied,you never need to haul a bunch of stuff on stage and a ramp might be handy.... I will always remember the look on Neve's face after I told them, when they said, "Leah, we just have to remember - the able bodied will destroy access at any cost."
 
A: What are you hoping audiences will leave the performance thinking about?
 
L: I hope folks leave seeing the breadth of our and their crip beauty, knowing that we have every right to live lusciously and complexly, to be celebrated, honored, desired and protected.  That they cry and cum and have their minds blown, just like I did 8 years ago.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpF85SfwxIo]

A poem written by Leah to accompany the Patient No More exhibit mural.