Canadian playwright Judith Thompson has a production on in Toronto this week entitled Rare. It is about people with Down syndrome and the title refers to the sad reality that there are fewer people with Down Syndrome — sad because they are being exterminated in utero solely due to their genetic flaw (an extra chromosone). I haven’t seen the play but I’ve read the reviews. I’m intrigued that the production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts uses actors with Down syndrome and I’m pleased (as the NOW reviewer noted) that a character with Down syndrome is not happy about having the genetic abnormality. There is no need to romanticize the condition, and the Globe and Mail‘s J. Kelly Nestruck says “The myth that the intellectually disabled are somehow innocents who live in a childlike state is shattered.”
Nestruck also pointed out something else from the play that those in polite society rather not discuss, noting “a scene about women who choose to have abortions rather than delivering children with Down syndrome.” There’s a letter to women pregnant with children diagnosed in utero with having the condition in which the character urges them to be brave, and Nestruck says this is the “slightly hair-raising point of the show: Here we are, dancing, singing and sharing – please, allow us to exist.” Interestingly, the CBC review doesn’t mention this, although it creeps up to the point without acknowledging it: “Thompson says she fears Down syndrome adults may be a disappearing community as fewer children are being born with Down syndrome because of genetic testing.” Still, no mention of abortion in that review. But perhaps that because, as Nestruck says, “the implications (of the letter) aren’t probed,” explaining: “If it’s cowardly for a woman to abort a child she doesn’t think she can handle raising because it has Down syndrome, then how is it right to abort a baby she thinks she can’t support for more prosaic financial reasons?” I note that line appeared in the Globe and Mail, not The Interim.
Nestruck says “Rare may, indeed, be a rarity – a pro-life play,” and says that “perhaps Canadian theatre’s most notable lack of diversity is in terms of ideology.” He concludes his review wishing that the conversation Thompson wants to have is ended too early, “exactly when things get uncomfortable.” Then again, eugenics is not a very pleasant subject to broach.
For raising the topic, if imperfectly, I praise Thompson. In many ways, though, I praise J. Kelly Nestruck’s review of it even more.