More MS news articles for September 2002

Play shows disability in new light

September 6, 2002
Heather Knight
The San Francisco Chronicle

Sitting in his wheelchair at his kitchen table with press releases and orange posters advertising his newest play spread around the room, Steve Parks chatted with a reporter about his one-man show, "F***ing Handicapped Guy."

The phone rang, and he let the answering machine pick it up. It was another reporter wanting to talk about his production.

Parks just shrugged and looked at the ceiling playfully. He's been writing plays for about 25 years. They have been produced by the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut, Soho Rep in New York, the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York, the Cast Theater in Los Angeles and the Denver Theater Center.

With his new show being part of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, this month marks the first time the Pacifica playwright has had a production staged close to home. And the first time anybody around here has paid him any heed.

But no matter.

"Attention is attention -- I just want people in the seats, frankly," Parks explained. "In terms of notoriety, there are people that are famous and well, I ain't. That's OK. It's the way it goes."

Parks has developed this c'est la vie attitude about any number of defining events in his life. He's come to accept his difficult childhood raised in a very strict Christian Scientist family and his later break from the religion. He's come to accept being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1980 and having to use a wheelchair for the past 10 years.

It all shows up in his largely autobiographical one-man show with the eye-catching name that exemplifies Parks' sarcastic, straightforward nature. The play's eight scenes depict Parks' encounters with other disabled people -- including a Hell's Angel with a broken back, a blind woman who trains guide dogs and a paraplegic who offers to carry Parks off a train -- who've helped him come to terms with his own disease.

But, he promises, it's not a downer or a syrupy sweet view of life in a wheelchair. Rather, he hopes the play will show audience members that his life hasn't been much different from theirs.

"I think they'll learn stuff about the handicapped situation," he said. "I hope that they learn that it's not a black-and-white thing where it's either good or it's bad. There's positive stuff here."

W. Kamau Bell, 29, agreed to direct the play after meeting Parks and seeing the playwright's fresh ways of portraying life as a disabled person.

"It's not very 'After-School Special,' " said Bell, who lives in San Francisco's Inner Sunset neighborhood. "It would be easy for Steve to go on stage and tell an hour of sad stories, but he really wants to make people laugh and think and question."

Bell said the play takes away some of the nobility we automatically assign to disabled people. They play's biting humor encourages people to see the disabled as regular folks, rather than sweet, slow Forrest Gump types so often portrayed in entertainment.

The production also discusses how disabled people view one another, something Bell had never considered before working with Parks.

"We all see disabled people as disabled people," Bell said. "But a guy with only one arm looks at a guy without legs and says, 'Wow, he's really disabled.' "

Parks is able to poke fun at his situation now, but it's taken a long time. Receiving his diagnosis after complaining of vision problems came as a double blow because he felt unequipped to deal with it.

"I was frightened and confused," he said. "Because of Christian Science, I knew nothing about body parts, nothing about how the human body works at all."

The diagnosis also was confounding because he'd always been taught by his parents that physical ailments signaled a person's moral failing. When he told his parents of his diagnosis, they didn't say anything and never talked about the disease. His body deteriorated considerably over the years, and he wound up needing a wheelchair in 1992. But eventually, he made some sort of peace with MS.

"I hate to say it -- it almost sounds like a Hallmark card -- but I'm a better person and a smarter person because of it," he said. "I'm a little bitter, but not really bitter. A lot of people are worse off than this."

After all, Parks has a supportive wife, Dea, who recently took over Parks' plumbing business so he could concentrate on writing full time. They have two kids, Wesley, 19, a sophomore at UC San Diego, and Kristen, 18, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. The family lives in a large home in a woodsy area on a hillside in Pacifica.

Dea said her husband's rather upbeat attitude has taken years to develop and that writing has helped him achieve peace.

"He was so angry, so mad," she said. "Then it was depression, why me, all that. But he's learned to accept it and live a day at a time. He's very at peace with this -- it's kind of weird in a way, but it's much easier to get along with him now."

Parks said he doesn't have any dreams of achieving fame through his plays or making it big in the theater world. He's just happy to be around to keep writing. And if the Bay Area is only discovering him now, that's just fine with him.

"I personally don't care," he said. "Being angry and being bitter -- for me, it's a waste of time. There's other stuff to do."

OnstageSteve Parks' "F***ing Handicapped Guy" starts at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 12 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Fringe Festival performances through Sept. 14, $8. Afterward, $15. (415) 282-8721.

Copyright 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle