By Danielle Levsky
SAN DIEGO — Creating an inclusive environment for audiences and the creative team, Moxie Theater brought Diana Burbano wisdom to life as a story that shared the many complexities and different experiences of how neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals communicate with themselves and each other.
In wisdom, Elsa (Mariel León) is an autistic primatologist, who works with Wookie (Nancy Ross), an orangutan she studies and practices speaking at the zoo where she works. Her sister Miri (Vanessa Duron) brings her son AJ (Enrique Xavier Martinez) to the zoo, imploring Elsa to watch him. AJ, a non-verbal teenager on the autism spectrum, begins to form a special and deep friendship with Wookie. Meanwhile, Miri and Jason (Alexander Guzman), Elsa’s former partner and current colleague, begin to pursue their own relationship while trying to support Elsa. The piece is really about how much each of us yearns to be understood by the world we inhabit.
Very often neurodivergent tales are told in a way that reduces their characters to tropes, stereotypes and pity, but the conversations and interactions that Wookie (beautifully described by Ross as innocent, curious and very physical) have with AJ are honest and captivating. He teaches Wookie the nature of human interaction, death, kindness. At a pivotal moment in the play where Elsa and Wookie interact, and Elsa recognizes that she can indeed understand Wookie’s communications, powerful knowledge and reassurance are exchanged, both with words and without. Overall, the playwrights’ focus on naturalistic writing, coupled with the actors’ authentic delivery and timing, contributed to the theme of communication.
With a style that oscillated between absurd and naturalistic, there were a few moments where I found where the direction could have been clearer about timeline jumps or communication/situation changes. This was quite clear in the moments when AJ and Wookie began to interact and understand each other, indicated by a recurring auditory cue; perhaps similar techniques could be applied to Elsa’s flashbacks and other moments of communication with Wookie.
With thoughtful writing, direction, acting and set design, Moxie also tapped inclusion specialist Samantha Ginn, who creates educational and acting programs to include neurodiverse individuals on stage. . As soon as spectators enter the Moxie space, there is a decompression zone, and in the room itself, accessibility for all spectators is prioritized and displayed at the start of the show.
Moxie carefully curated a production team and space that would not only support this show, but care for the world of the play: specifically, in production, characterization, and direction to respect and honor neurodivergent experiences. wisdom showcased the quality and caliber of Moxie’s work, and I’m excited to see how they tell stories in the future.
wisdom ran through February 20 at the Moxie Theater 6663 El Cajon Blvd Suite N, San Diego, CA 92115. Check out upcoming productions and information at moxietheatre.com.
Danielle Levsky (she/her) is a San Diego-based writer, clown, producer, and arts and culture educator whose work showcases people, ideas, and principles that highlight the experiences of diverse audiences.