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The Curtain Also Rises

Maggie Beale-Wirsing and Devon Hanna show off their theater spirit.
Photo by Photograph by Graham Blair

Maggie Beale-Wirsing and Devon Hanna show off their theater spirit.

Linda Hanna smiles politely, warily. She’s sized you up and deemed you nonthreatening enough. So here in this cluttered backstage theater office, you’re allowed behind her personal bunker. Defense shields are down. Linda opens up on a subject she guards with heightened motherly obligation: her 12-year-old son, Devon.

Devon was born with Down syndrome. Before meeting with Linda, you’ve read up on this chromosomal anomaly. You recall how people with Down syndrome used to be referred to as Mongoloids—because of a slanted, Oriental look caused by epicanthial folds around their eyes. Down syndrome occurs in one in a thousand births and is the most frequent form of mental retardation. This you know. But Linda Hanna isn’t here to talk pathophysiology. She wants to talk about her son.

She wants you to celebrate with her that joyous January opening day when she walked into Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado Theatre looking for Devon. There he was, working as an usher for the San Diego Junior Theatre’s presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Handing out programs and tearing ticket stubs, just like the other kids. Tears of joy streamed down her face. We’ve found a home, she realized, and offered a silent, thankful prayer.

Two months later, Devon—who has been putting on costumes and acting out scenes for his family since age 2—gets cast in Henry and Ramona. You’re invited to see the show and to follow him backstage. Of course you accept.

There’s Devon in the green room, practicing yo-yo tricks. The play, based on the collective works of children’s book author Beverly Cleary, is set in the 1950s. Devon is dressed in a blue V-neck cardigan, tan corduroys and an anachronistic pair of blue Vans sneakers. His dark hair is parted to the side. Wide, dark eyes gaze through prescription glasses as the purple yo-yo rises and falls. Up and down. Devon and yo-yo rarely part company, you’ll soon learn.

Mike Anthony enters the green room. His calm belies the bedlam. About two dozen junior thespians scatter hither and yon. Most are cruising at half-speed. Heading to makeup. Or getting in place for an entrance. Some stop to admire the buffet spread—grapes, bagels, orange juice—set up on a metal folding table in the middle of the room. Amid this activity, Devon spots Mike.

“Hey, Mike!” Devon cries. “Guess what! I just got m-m-m-married!”

“To who?” Mike inquires.

“M-m-my girlfriend!”

Mike, a gracefully tall, bald black man who is directing Henry and Ramona, smiles, as if it’s perfectly natural for a 12-year-old in the middle of a stage show to get hitched.

No time now for chitchat. Devon has a scene coming up. His entrance is from stage left. One of the other actors who will enter with Devon tells him this, and they shuffle out of the green room. On stage, Devon and yo-yo are part of a crowd scene. No problem. He exits, stage left.

Devon, who plays two characters, now has a costume change. A young actor with curly rings of hair, who looks like she walked out of a Norman Rockwell painting, leads Devon to the makeup room.

“Time to get into your robot costume, Devon,” says a makeup-room mom.

“I hate that costume,” says Devon. “It’s stinky.”

You only have to wear it for the next 10 minutes, he is told.

Yet another cast member leads Devon, now encased in a silver-and-white robot costume that obscures his face, toward his next entrance.

At this point, you take a seat in the back of the theater. Today’s show is a special matinee. The audience is full of elementary school kids. They squirm in their seats, turbo-fueled by the excitement of a midweek field trip. Though they fidget, they seem to be entranced by the production.

Up on stage, you spy Devon. His stint as a robot named Thorvo goes well, drawing laughs at the appropriate times. The scene ends, but soon enough he’s back on stage, as David the neighborhood boy, for a dance number.

Watching Devon sway to the music’s beat, a thought occurs to you. There he is, near the back of the stage. You’ve been looking especially for him. He’s easy enough to pick out. But would you have seen him, really seen him, you wonder, if you hadn’t been looking for the Down syndrome boy? Would you have noticed him and then quickly looked away?

Linda Hanna believes in mainstreaming. She is disappointed with school districts that don’t practice inclusion. She speaks of statistics that show Down syndrome children who are included in standard classrooms are more successful in life and in gaining employment. She speaks passionately about this.

“Ever since Devon was born, my husband and I have loved him,” she says. “He is our gift, our special gift from heaven. And he is just as important as our other children. There is no difference. He has taught us a lot, and he has a lot to share. And he has a right to be out there.”

Linda is a sign-language interpreter for the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District. Her husband, Antoine, owns Salon Antoine, a full-service hair-styling center in Mission Valley. Linda and Antoine have visions, hopes and dreams for Devon. Like any parent would have for any child. Part of the vision is for him to become independent. No matter what job he ends up doing, they want him to be happy, to have high self-esteem, to have friends and to live as independently as possible.

To get there, the Hannas felt an early need to start him on this road. So they’ve been preparing Devon for his “path”—one that will be different from most, says Linda. But no less important. His path will have to include independence. As much as she loves all her children, she knows they will eventually move on. All of them.

Like Shadi, 20, a well-toned soccer player at Cuyamaca Community College, who says Devon “marries” all the girls Shadi brings home to meet the family. And René, 17, a pretty Valhalla High School senior, who addresses Devon as “Bubba” or “Bub.” And Linda and Antoine’s foster son, Mark, 16, who is deaf and no longer lives in the Hannas’ El Cajon home on a full-time basis—but visits regularly. Each will find his or her path.

Since he was 2, Devon has been putting on costumes
To show off his budding independence to a visitor, Devon straps on a helmet and takes off up the street on his blue Trek mountain bike. Later, he concedes to lead a tour of his room. It’s filled with books, yo-yos, pictures of horses, and a clock radio/CD player. Devon cues up a Grease medley, jumps atop the green plaid spread covering his bed and offers an impromptu song-and-dance performance. You know how actors are.

Linda and Antoine watch this in amusement. They want Devon to be secure. And as much as they can, they are preparing him for society. He has to know how to behave in public. How to communicate. How to get along. All the things you can’t learn in a segregated environment.

And a segregated environment, says Linda, is something Junior Theatre definitely is not.

San Diego Junior Theatre is an arts education program that got its start at the Old Globe Theatre in 1948. Productions have been staged in the Casa del Prado Theatre since 1953. Open to children ages 4 to 18, the program offers a diversified after-school curriculum in acting, voice and dance. Auditions for six annual productions are open only to kids enrolled in the program’s classes.

Will Neblett is the nonprofit organization’s executive and artistic director. He’s spent 20 years working in arts and education. For 15 of those years, he was an administrator in the Oceanside Unified School District. Seated in a small office on the second floor of the Casa del Prado, Neblett offers insight on why Junior Theatre is able to accommodate Devon.

“We’re all about giving kids confidence,” he says. “Obviously, we’re smaller than most schools are, and we’re less bound by rules. There is a lot of fear in schools. Teachers are afraid, and there’s not enough training. This causes a lot of roadblocks.”

Linda has had it with roadblocks. She pulled Devon out of Avocado Elementary School for five weeks after the start of this school year. She says she witnessed “disregard for his dignity and a lack of support and adaptations for him in the mainstream, as the law dictates.”

Asked about the situation, school principal Susan Cunningham says: “We try to allow as much mainstreaming as possible. It’s done on an individual basis.” There are 14 special-education children among Avocado Elementary’s student population of 590.

“We have to look at the academic proposition for all our students in these situations,” says Cunningham. “We want a situation that is mutually beneficial for all. If, developmentally, a student isn’t ready to read about and discuss the Emancipation Proclamation, how does a student like Devon participate? I know the Hannas are passionate about this... But as time goes on, some differences in academics are difficult to compensate for.”

Devon’s now back in Avocado Elementary. And Linda continues to monitor the situation. But it was during the rough time at school that Linda called on Junior Theatre.

“It’s something I’d heard about years ago,” she says. “After the thing with the school, I just picked up the phone and called. I spoke to the receptionist. Then to some teachers. Then to the educational director. And it was amazing. Sometimes I would just stop and think, I’ve never been greeted so warmly by people. I’m usually told why this or that program can’t include a child who has a disability. I’m always given excuses why we can’t belong. When I talked to Junior Theatre, their attitude was 180 degrees different.”

Teachers gave Linda their home phone numbers. She spoke with them some more; observed a few classes. She discussed with teachers which classes might be best for Devon.

She remembers being astonished. “I felt these people were so sincere. They opened their doors. They embraced us,” she says.

“They have allowed Devon to do whatever it is he does best. They’ve given him a chance, where other places just slam doors in our faces. The people here share a vision that I have for Devon: that he can reach a potential. They are going to work with him, and show him and guide him on how to get there. They are giving him an avenue. They understand it’s a very slow process. But they’re willing to make it work.”

During rehearsals for Henry and Ramona, Linda went to the director to ask if he wanted Linda or her husband backstage for all the shows. “Thanks, but no need” was the reply. All had been arranged—a high school student is helping out. A couple of them, actually. Truth be told, all the kids are pitching in.

Linda was dumbstruck. For the first time in her life, an organization was one step ahead of her. Rather than having to push, prod, cajole or convince somebody or some organization, Linda has been made part of a team. It’s hard to describe how good that feels.

But you’re asking yourself: Is Devon in this play because he has Down syndrome? Is this a pity cast?

Director Mike Anthony hesitates at the question, but only for a second. “Devon tried out just like everybody else. He sang ‘Hello, Dolly.’ He went though some acting exercises. I asked him to jump rope. To play marbles. I wanted to see if he could take direction. Acting-wise, I’m not just letting him be a part of this. He beat others out.”

There were some problems. Mike says if Devon’s tired, he can become unfocused. “There was an issue with him getting into other people’s belongings,” he adds. “But we addressed that. At first, we thought Devon might need a buddy backstage. But I really, really believe Devon is smarter than he lets on. For instance, we started off having somebody help dress him. But he knows how to dress himself.

“In all, he’s done amazingly well. This is a first for San Diego Junior Theatre, and it’s been a very positive learning process.”

WHEN LINDA was growing up, she was told to “look the other way.” Weren’t we all? Don’t stare at the retarded kids. Don’t approach them. Linda knows now how wrong that advice is.

“That just isolates people more,” she says. “And it makes you afraid of the situation. Here in Junior Theatre, I think these kids are comfortable with Devon. It gives them opportunities to be responsible, to shine and to feel good about themselves because they are able to help someone else.”

She believes these kinds of lessons stay with you for life. “These other kids might meet someone later on who has a disability or who has Down syndrome. They’ll look back and remember they were in a show with a boy who had Down syndrome. And they’ll view having a disability more positively, rather than being afraid.”

You can tell Linda has confronted more than her share of the public’s fear. Your heart sinks when you imagine how casualties can mount over the years from the small, daily battles with prejudice.

But your soul soars after chatting with 12-year-old Maggie Beale-Wirsing. An angel. The Standley Middle School sixth-grader with rosy cheeks and 1,000-watt smile met Devon on the set of Henry and Ramona. The pair have several entrances together, including the final scene, in which Maggie is dressed in a blue cheerleader outfit.

“Devon is a really nice boy,” Maggie declares. “He’s stubborn at times. You should see how crazy I get when he’s not ready for the finale. Sometimes you have to coax Devon to do something. But he is sweet and good-natured. I’ve known other people with disabilities. Sometimes people tease them. I don’t understand that. It’s not their fault they have a disability. They’re people, just like me.”

Maggie plans to keep in touch with Devon. Both are going to try out for Charlotte’s Web. Auditions and rehearsals are coming up soon.

But right now—backstage for the moment—there’s one more piece of unfinished business: a last Henry and Ramona curtain call. They enter and move to center stage. Devon and Maggie bow as the audience claps. They move to stage right. Now the lead actors enter, to swelling applause. The grinning cast forms a line. Devon casually bites at a thumbnail. Everyone waves and takes a last bow in unison. The lights go to black.

Encore, you think, wishing the applause would never end.

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