Dallas — Remember not so long ago when a famed and much-awarded Olympian publicly came out as transgender, and how many called that act courageous and brave—only to have others complain that such a move is not courageous? Fighting and dying on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan is courage, they would say.
Yes, fighting for your country is brave. So is a public figure making a public statement about being part of a marginalized group so that others in said group can be stronger about being who they are. So is coming forward as a victim of abuse to help others who have been abused.
Fighting for freedom, truth, respect, acceptance and equality—all acts of bravery.
The point is, no one can tell you what is or is not courageous or brave.
It’s tempting to use those adjectives to describe what Sherry Jo Ward accomplishes with her one-woman show Stiff, produced under the umbrella of Risk Theater Initiative and part of the 19th annual Festival of Independent Theatres.
My feeling, though, is that Sherry Jo Ward is doing the very thing that she always done, that she couldn’t live without: Make theater.
Except now she’s talking about how she’s been making theater for the past few years while facing a big obstacle that limits the use of one of the three main tools for an actor—the body. The others are voice and mind, as she explains in Stiff.
Ward was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome after visits to several doctors and specialists. It’s a rare neurological disease that causes muscles to seize up with no notice, and for limbs and parts of the body to go stiff. Only about 300 people in the United States have it. There is no known cure.
Despite this impairment, she has continued to perform on local stages, such as the second local production of International Falls, created with her husband Thomas Ward, at Stage West; and Madeleine George’s Precious Little at Echo Theatre, Who Am I This Time (And Other Conundrums of Love)? at Circle Theatre, and, coming this fall, Life Sucks at Stage West.
In Stiff, Sherry Jo Ward mostly sits in an comfy-looking orange armchair with matching ottoman, her rolling walker and quad-base cane within arm’s reach. Also nearby is director Marianne Galloway, ready with the script to prompt on lines if needed, and with a fold-out floor mat in the instance that Ward loses bodily control and needs to rest on the floor. This happened during the performance reviewed, and she still performed her script on her back, looking up at the lighting grid at the Bath House Cultural Center.
The show, written by Sherry Jo Ward, is filled with humor—it’s OK to engage in laughter through tears, or while on the edge of your seat—candidness and honesty. It’s cleverly constructed, with effective visual aids projected on the back wall.
“‘What’s wrong with you?’ is kind of rude,” she says about her first encounter with the driver of Fort Worth Transportation Authority’s (The T) MITS Paratransit program. The Wards live in Fort Worth, and she teaches an intro to theater class at Tarrant County College, and is delivered there on the short bus. You can imagine the jokes about that.
Throughout the 50 minutes, we hear about the other riders on MITS, her diagnosis, SPS itself, her physical therapist, her newfound love of cannabis, and her mother-in-law Pat, who was sitting in front of me at the opening performance, laughing as hard as everyone else. She’s also very upfront about how she has(n’t) coped with having SPS, and frank about her opinion on pity. She even calls in Diane Sawyer to help explain.
You can call Stiff brave or courageous, and that would be true. But this show is, at its heart, the result of a talented actress and storyteller delivering one of the most honest, funny, compelling and unforgettable pieces of theater you might see in your lifetime.
That’s not hyperbole.
Sherry Jo Ward makes theater because nothing’s going to keep her from it.
That's just who she is.
Stiff continues in the following blocks:
- 8 p.m. Thursday, July 27
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
Read our interview with Sherry Jo Ward and director Marianne Galloway here
See more info about the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatres schedule here.