Friday, February 23, 2018

Weekend Away

It’s time for the 12th annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance weekend, so I’m heading out with friends and family to infiltrate among the rich and famous.


The purpose of this event is to raise money for the Broward County Boys & Girls Clubs, something I think we now need more than ever, so I’m honored to be invited back as a Distinguished Guest Judge.

Things will be a little quiet on this end, though.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Graham’s Legacy

As noted in Short Takes, Billy Graham shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 99.  The commentariat is full of remembrances of “America’s pastor” and how he gave advice to presidents starting back in the 1950’s and how he gave comfort to millions through his ministry.

But he also gave rise to the horde of hucksters, bigots, and thieves disguised as ministers who raked in millions of tax-free dollars from the gullible while peddling bullshit bottled as salvation.  He also endowed his son Franklin with a nasty right-wing agenda of arrogant hatred; Torquemada in Prada.

That’s not to say that without Billy Graham there wouldn’t have been evil masquerading as holiness; some other enterprising Elmer Gantry would have emerged just as easily in our get-rich-quick culture of ballyhoo and miracle cures.  But I’d just as soon he had stuck to some other line of work.

“F*ck You, I Like Guns”

A veteran and pacifist on the reality of gun ownership.

America, can we talk? Let’s just cut the shit for once and actually talk about what’s going on without blustering and pretending we’re actually doing a good job at adulting as a country right now. We’re not. We’re really screwing this whole society thing up, and we have to do better. We don’t have a choice. People are dying. At this rate, it’s not if your kids, or mine, are involved in a school shooting, it’s when. One of these happens every 60 hours on average in the US. If you think it can’t affect you, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. So let’s talk.

I’ll start. I’m an Army veteran. I like M-4’s, which are, for all practical purposes, an AR-15, just with a few extra features that people almost never use anyway. I’d say at least 70% of my formal weapons training is on that exact rifle, with the other 30% being split between various and sundry machineguns and grenade launchers. My experience is pretty representative of soldiers of my era. Most of us are really good with an M-4, and most of us like it at least reasonably well, because it is an objectively good rifle. I was good with an M-4, really good. I earned the Expert badge every time I went to the range, starting in Basic Training. This isn’t uncommon. I can name dozens of other soldiers/veterans I know personally who can say the exact same thing. This rifle is surprisingly easy to use, completely idiot-proof really, has next to no recoil, comes apart and cleans up like a dream, and is light to carry around. I’m probably more accurate with it than I would be with pretty much any other weapon in existence. I like this rifle a lot. I like marksmanship as a sport. When I was in the military, I enjoyed combining these two things as often as they’d let me.

With all that said, enough is enough. My knee jerk reaction is to consider weapons like the AR-15 no big deal because it is my default setting. It’s where my training lies. It is my normal, because I learned how to fire a rifle IN THE ARMY. You know, while I may only have shot plastic targets on the ranges of Texas, Georgia, and Missouri, that’s not what those weapons were designed for, and those targets weren’t shaped like deer. They were shaped like people. Sometimes we even put little hats on them. You learn to take a gut shot, “center mass”, because it’s a bigger target than the head, and also because if you maim the enemy soldier rather than killing him cleanly, more of his buddies will come out and get him, and you can shoot them, too. He’ll die of those injuries, but it’ll take him a while, giving you the chance to pick off as many of his compadres as you can. That’s how my Drill Sergeant explained it anyway. I’m sure there are many schools of thought on it. The fact is, though, when I went through my marksmanship training in the US Army, I was not learning how to be a competition shooter in the Olympics, or a good hunter. I was being taught how to kill people as efficiently as possible, and that was never a secret.

As an avowed pacifist now, it turns my stomach to even type the above words, but can you refute them? I can’t. Every weapon that a US Army soldier uses has the express purpose of killing human beings. That is what they are made for. The choice rifle for years has been some variant of what civilians are sold as an AR-15. Whether it was an M-4 or an M-16 matters little. The function is the same, and so is the purpose. These are not deer rifles. They are not target rifles. They are people killing rifles. Let’s stop pretending they’re not.

[…]

I understand that people want to be able to own guns. That’s ok. We just need to really think about how we’re managing this. Yes, we have to manage it, just as we manage car ownership. People have to get a license to operate a car, and if you operate a car without a license, you’re going to get in trouble for that. We manage all things in society that can pose a danger to other people by their misuse. In addition to cars, we manage drugs, alcohol, exotic animals (there are certain zip codes where you can’t own Serval cats, for example), and fireworks, among other things. We restrict what types of businesses can operate in which zones of the city or county. We have a whole system of permitting for just about any activity a person wants to conduct since those activities could affect others, and we realize, as a society, that we need to try to minimize the risk to other people that comes from the chosen activities of those around them in which they have no say. Gun ownership is the one thing our country collectively refuses to manage, and the result is a lot of dead people.

I can’t drive a Formula One car to work. It would be really cool to be able to do that, and I could probably cut my commute time by a lot. Hey, I’m a good driver, a responsible Formula One owner. You shouldn’t be scared to be on the freeway next to me as I zip around you at 140 MPH, leaving your Mazda in a cloud of dust! Why are you scared? Cars don’t kill people. People kill people. Doesn’t this sound like bullshit? It is bullshit, and everybody knows. Not one person I know would argue non-ironically that Formula One cars on the freeway are a good idea. Yet, these same people will say it’s totally ok to own the firearm equivalent because, in the words of comedian Jim Jeffries, “fuck you, I like guns”.

[…]

Let’s be honest. You just want a cool toy, and for the vast majority of people, that’s all an AR-15 is. It’s something fun to take to the range and put some really wicked holes in a piece of paper. Good for you. I know how enjoyable that is. I’m sure for a certain percentage of people, they might not kill anyone driving a Formula One car down the freeway, or owning a Cheetah as a pet, or setting off professional grade fireworks without a permit. Some people are good with this stuff, and some people are lucky, but those cases don’t negate the overall rule. Military style rifles have been the choice du jour in the incidents that have made our country the mass shootings capitol of the world. Formula One cars aren’t good for commuting. Cheetahs are bitey. Professional grade fireworks will probably take your hand off. All but one of these are common sense to the average American. Let’s fix that. Be honest, you don’t need that AR-15. Nobody does. Society needs them gone, no matter how good you may be with yours. Kids are dying, and it’s time to stop fucking around.

What he said.

And don’t get me started on the asinine idea of arming teachers in schools.  Just don’t.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How Movements Begin

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are picking up the torch.

Via BuzzFeed:

At dusk on Sunday night, Cameron Kasky was taking a brief, quiet moment for himself. He lay on a picnic table in a park not far from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman opened fire Wednesday, killing 17 of his classmates and teachers, and wounding 14 others.

Kasky was exhausted. He estimated that he’d done more than 50 interviews since the shooting, all to promote a movement against gun violence that he and his young friends have spearheaded in the wake of their school’s tragedy.

“We, as a community, needed one thing,” he said of his desire to form the group to give his friends a purpose amid the grief.

Kasky, just 17, said he first came up with the name of this new movement, “Never Again,” while wearing his Ghostbusters pajamas.

In just days, the group of teenage survivors have made themselves impossible to ignore, headlining rallies, penning op-eds, and blanketing cable news coverage over the Presidents Day weekend with their calls for action.

But behind the scenes, they’re also just kids — sitting in a circle on the floor in the home of one of their parents, eating a batch of baked pasta, tweeting at each other, and comparing which celebrity just shared their post. There’s laughter and tears, and “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers plays briefly, but it’s also remarkably businesslike. There’s work to do and a seemingly endless number of phone calls to answer.

“We slept enough to keep us going, but we’ve been nonstop all day, all night,” said Sofie Whitney, 18, a senior who estimated that she has spent 70% of the past 48 hours speaking with reporters. “This isn’t easy for us, but it’s something I need to do.”

[…]

David Hogg, the 17-year-old student journalist who had interviewed his classmates while they hid from the shooter, went on television the next day, pleading with the country for action. “Please! We are children. You guys are the adults,” he said during a CNN interview that was played across the country. “Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

Instead, it was the students themselves who took action.

Kasky began a group text with a few friends that has since ballooned to include as many as 19 participants. Someone built a website, while another person designed a logo. “I’ve been there [in the group chat] since basically hour one,” said Whitney. “Cameron just felt really inclined to make a specific movement. You can’t just make change. You have to be organized.”

On Saturday, they fanned out across the television networks, giving as many interviews as they could.

At a Fort Lauderdale rally, senior Emma González delivered a fiery speech against President Trump and the NRA, which quickly went viral and was seen by millions around the globe. “The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” she told the crowd through tears. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS.”

By Sunday night, as their names and movement trended worldwide, the teens regrouped in a makeshift “headquarters” in a living room. Some of the students hold leadership positions at their school, so they’re used to planning committees and meetings. (As people online tweeted that González should run for president, she joked that she already is president — of her school’s Gay–Straight Alliance.)

[…]

The week ahead is mapped out on whiteboards that were purchased at Target. On the boards are the names of the organizers, with their commitments for the week, and green tape dividing the days in makeshift fashion. Major news network appointments are mixed in with the times of funerals.

As others answered phone calls, Jaclyn Corin, the 17-year-old in charge of logistics for the Tallahassee event on Wednesday, worked on a press release about the event — although she referred to it as “an essay.” The teens are planning to meet with Florida’s attorney general, House speaker, and Senate president. (Gov. Rick Scott’s office told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday he would also meet with the students.) “REMEMBER: THIS IS ALL AT A STATE LEVEL,” Corin wrote in capital letters in the final press release.

Around 10 p.m., concerned parents began to call. One student mentioned she was supposed to be home at a certain time, while another negotiated with his folks, who seemed to be telling him to get more rest.

After people left and the night finally ended at 11 p.m., Hogg tried to go to sleep. He played “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio in a bid to unwind. In a few hours, he had to be awake. He had another interview to do.

I am remembering back to when I was 17 in 1969 and joining the anti-war rallies, signing up to attend the Moratoriums, marching for peace.  But the war in Vietnam was on a different level; it wasn’t being fought in the halls of the local schools and the sense of urgency was not as intense as what these students are feeling.  After all, I had not seen my friends die in the middle of Mrs. Burget’s math class.

I am moved by their passion that is propelling this movement, but it is tempered deeply by the knowledge of what it was made them say “Never Again.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ask Them This

In the wake of yet another mass shooting and the endless cycle of “thoughts and prayers” emanating from elected officials and the perpetual “now is not the time” excuse for avoiding anything to do with gun control, it is time to change the focus from the abstract to the specific: who is paying them to utter their “thoughts and prayers”?

I have resolved to ask every elected official running for office from here on out, regardless of party and regardless of office, how much money they’ve received from the NRA or any other gun lobby.  Then smile and patiently wait for their answer.

It’s a simple question, really, and they should know the answer.  And it should be a matter of public record so if they fudge, we can pull it up and tell them how much they’ve gotten from them.  Then ask them what they plan to do with it.

Asking them where they stand on gun control invites weaseling and mumbling about “defending the Second Amendment.”  What they’re really saying is that being on the payroll of the NRA is more important than actually representing the rest of us who would rather not have to contemplate yet again another somber week of burying children because it’s easier in Florida to buy an AR-15 than it is to buy medicine to control diarrhea.

So ask them: “How much money did you get from the NRA?” and vote accordingly.

Truth Deficit

House Speaker Paul Ryan is trotting out an old lie about Social Security and Medicare in order to justify cutting “entitlements.”

He told Fox News Sunday that the only way to deal with the looming deficit caused by the GOP tax cuts that give millions of relief to the poor Koch brothers was to cut back on the payments to Social Security and Medicare recipients because, well, they don’t deserve them or something.

The truth is that both programs are designed to be self-sustaining; take a look at your paycheck and note the fine print that designates the deductions for FICA and Medicare.  It totals about 15% and it goes into a separate fund that then pays out to the people who are receiving it.  In other words, you are paying now for people who are getting it, and when you retire, the people who are working will be paying for you.  The problem for these programs isn’t that they’re hitting the deficit, it’s that there are more people who are my age (65) and older who are drawing on the fund.  It has nothing to do with whatever the hell the GOP did to assure us that by the time we get them out of office we’ll be back in debt up to our eyeballs.

And don’t get me started on the misuse of the word “entitlement.”

At any rate, Paul Ryan is a lying sack of shit who would starve his own granny to get the largess from the Kochs.

What A Relief

Via the Washington Post:

The White House was under siege.

Domestic abuse allegations against a senior aide were ignored, pointing to a potential high-level coverup. Two Cabinet secretaries were caught charging taxpayers for luxury travel. A Playboy centerfold alleged an extramarital affair with the president. And the special counsel’s Russia investigation was intensifying. The tumult was so intense that there was fervent speculation that President Trump might fire his chief of staff.

But a gun massacre at a Florida high school last Wednesday, which left 17 dead, seemed to shift the media glare away from the Trump scandals and gave embattled aides an opportunity to re­focus on handling a crisis not of their own making. While the White House mourned the loss of life in Parkland, Fla., some aides privately acknowledged that the tragedy offered a breather from the political storm.

A tentative plan for White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to address the news media from the briefing room Wednesday — where he would have faced intense scrutiny over his role in the mishandling of the domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter — was scuttled.

One White House official said the shooting forced the White House to focus on critical and serious issues — like consoling the victims and trying to heal the nation — rather than getting bogged down in what they view as more trivial West Wing drama.

“For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal conversations. “A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled.”

Yes, I’m sure the families of the victims and the community are glad they could provide some comfort and relief for the poor beleaguered White House.  Next time Trump gets in trouble maybe we’ll be attacked by terrorists flying planes into buildings to prop up his ratings.

Sheesh.  These are horrible people.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, the federal holiday mashed together to honor Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday which used to be holidays on their own. This one generically honors all presidents and remembering the times when we had one, and it’s a mid-winter break for schools and a day off for those of us who work in them.

Things will be a little quiet around here.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Reading

Four Truths About the Florida School Shooting — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Onto the continuing tragedy of American gun violence are now piled many kinds of grotesquerie, not least the e-mails, sure to come to any parent with kids still in school anywhere in the country, offering “tips on talking to children about violence” and promising that your child’s school “has been performing lockdown drill protocols that our security team and consultants have recommended to ensure that we are prepared in the unlikely event that an incident occurs.” We have normalized gun killings to the point that we must now be reassured that, when the person with the AR-15 comes to your kid’s school, there’s a plan to cope with him. (That the planning is almost worthless is proved by the killings in Florida, where the murderer may have taken advantage of his knowledge of the lockdown protocols in order to kill more students.) Here, though, are four simple truths worth saying again, in the aftermath of the Florida massacre, about gun control and gun violence.

1. The gun lobby, and the Republican Party it controls, have accepted as a matter of necessity the ongoing deaths of hundreds of children as the price that they are prepared to pay for the fetishization of weapons. The claim of this lobby’s complicity in murder is not exaggerated or hysterical but, by now, quite simple and precise: when you refuse to act to stop a social catastrophe from happening, you are responsible for the consequences of the social catastrophe. If you refuse to immunize your children and a measles epidemic breaks out, you are implicated in the measles. If you refuse to pay money for sewers and cholera breaks out, you are complicit in the cholera. Acts have consequences. This complicity includes all of the hand-wringers and the tut-tutters and the “nothing to be done”-ers as much as the N.R.A. hardcore. Many people have predicted, repeatedly, that one gun massacre would lead to the next—and that more gun massacres would probably take place in one year in America than in the rest of the civilized world combined—and they have been proved right, and then right again. Since everyone knew that this would happen again, those who did nothing to stop it happening again—and everything they did to see that no one else could do anything to stop it happening again—are complicit when it happens, again.

2. The claim that gun massacres are mysterious or difficult or bewildering or resistant to legislation is a lie. When people say that nothing can be done because this law wouldn’t stop this one, or that law that one, they are acting in ignorance of the most significant and obvious fact: that no other modernized society experiences remotely the frequency or the horror of American gun killings. There is no mystery at all to stopping this, if there is a minimal will to stop it. A huge, repeated body of social science shows that gun control controls gun violence, and largely eliminates gun massacres, within the normal limits of human action. (People still die of infections; that is no argument against the efficacy of antibiotics. Crimes continue on our streets; that is no argument against the thousand small sanities that have so dramatically reduced violent crime in our cities.) If we had gun laws like the gun laws in Canada or in Britain, we would have gun violence at the level that it exists in Canada and Britain. There is no special American quiddity that would alter this—to insist otherwise is as irrational as insisting that American kids shouldn’t be immunized because American kids have a different kind of immunity than other kids. They don’t. Building small barriers to gun violence reduces all gun violence. The lesson of contemporary social science is that small difficulties have great effects; make crime harder and you have much less crime. Make getting guns harder and you will have fewer people using them. Merely make gun ownership as demanding as, say, car ownership, with a license to obtain and insurance to buy, and you will see a drastic reduction in gun violence and perhaps a near-end to the mass killings of children.

3. The Second Amendment is not a barrier to gun sanity. The reading, from left to right, of the amendment was—until the day before yesterday, historically speaking—that it provided no guarantee to the individual ownership of guns. The notion that it does is novel, radical, and wrong.

4. The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene. Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given. Saying this says nothing; every country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them. When Donald Trump, who last year signed a bill to end a mild Obama-era rule designed to keep mass-killing weapons out of the hands of people with certain mental illnesses, talks about reporting people who are “mentally disturbed” to the proper authorities—well, irony piles upon irony, and the only adequate tribute is contempt and silence.

Mueller’s Message to America — Paul Rosenzweig in The Atlantic.

With yet another blockbuster indictment (why is it always on a Friday afternoon?), Special Counsel Robert Mueller has, once again, upended Washington. And this time, it is possible  that his efforts may have a wider effect outside the Beltway.

For those following the matter, there has been little doubt that Russian citizens attempted to interfere with the American presidential election. The American intelligence agencies  publicized  that conclusion more than a year ago in a report issued in January 2017, and it has stood by the analysis whenever it has been questioned. But some in the country have doubted the assertion—asking for evidence of interference that was not forthcoming.

Now the evidence has been laid out in painful detail by the special counsel. If any significant fraction of what is alleged in the latest indictment is true (and we should, of course, remind ourselves that an indictment is just an allegation—not proof), then this tale is a stunning condemnation of Russian activity. A Russian organization with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars is said to have systematically engaged in an effort (code named “Project Lakhta”) to undermine the integrity of the election and, perhaps more importantly, to have attempted to influence the election to benefit then-candidate Donald Trump. Among the allegations, the Russians:

  • Conducted political intelligence-gathering activities in the United States;

  • Hid their activities by setting up virtual networks in America that masked their extra-American communications;

  • Influenced the American election by using false personas to organize rallies for Trump, criticizing Muslims and spreading allegations of voter fraud by candidate Clinton;

  • Stole American identities to create controlled accounts; and

  • Destroyed evidence of their activities.

The details of these activities are painfully explicit; the indictment cites dates, times, places, messages, posts, and specific rallies. In short, if the facts prove out, there can be absolutely no doubt—none whatsoever—that Russian actors engaged in a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign of influence.

From this, it seems that two things are clear. First, while the “official” purpose of this indictment is to criminally prosecute violations of American law, the indictment also has a second purpose—to inform the American public and their representatives. Let’s be blunt—none of the Russians who were indicted will ever,ever, see the inside of an American courtroom. Russia won’t extradite them and we won’t, realistically, expect them to do so. The individuals may not have as much freedom to travel (say, to the French Riviera) for fear of arrest, but otherwise the effect on them will be negligible.

Given that reality, this indictment (which prosecutors sometimes call a “speaking indictment”) is so detailed precisely because the evidence will never be presented in a court. It is designed to give as full an accounting of the known facts as the prosecutors reasonably can. Beyond prosecution, the clear goal here is to speak to the American public—and if this message isn’t sufficient, then no message can possibly sway the body politic.

The indictment is also conspicuous for failing to allege any act of collusion between the Russian actors and any Americans at all. There are no identified American co-conspirators and there certainly is no allegation that the Russians acted with the knowledge of (much less the approval of) any individuals in the Trump campaign. As far as the indictment is concerned, the Russian activity was initiated by the Russians for their own strategic benefit, and candidate Trump may only have been an incidental beneficiary of their activity.

Again, that seems an unlikely proposition. But in fairness to President Trump, we need to acknowledge that, thus far, the Mueller team has alleged no active collusion. For the Trump team, that will be the takeaway from today’s indictment.

For the rest of America, the takeaway should be much grimmer: The threat to the integrity of our elections is real. The main question that Mueller asks is not whether the Russians are guilty, but what America is going to do about it? If, faced with this reality, we continue to do nothing, then the blame for the next failure will be on us.

Ben Franklin, when asked what sort of government the Founders created, is reported to have said “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Americans must now to decide if we want to keep ours.

Breaking Barriers — Sopan Deb profiles an actor with Down Syndrome who plays the lead.

Near the end of 2015, the playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and the actress Jamie Brewer were watching clips of Donald J. Trump, then a candidate, appearing to mock a reporter with a physical disability. They were horrified — which made their work on a new play, centered on a character with Down syndrome, all the more significant.

“From that point forward, the play took on a new meaning for me,” Ms. Ferrentino said.

“Big time,” Ms. Brewer added.

“Watching you watch that video, seeing your reaction to it, you cried,” Ms. Ferrentino said, turning to her.

“I was emotional,” Ms. Brewer said.

The play, “Amy and the Orphans,” which opens March 1 in a Roundabout Theater Company production at the Laura Pels Theater, is a barrier-breaking show. Ms. Brewer, 33, and her understudy, Edward Barbanell, 40, are thought to be the only known performers with Down syndrome to play the lead in an Off Broadway or Broadway theater production.

The show is about three siblings who reunite after their father’s death, and the road trip that follows. Ms. Ferrentino, who debuted with the critically acclaimed play “Ugly Lies the Bone,” in 2015, was insistent that the title role be played by someone with the disability, even leaving a note in an early draft of the script: “Finding a talented actor with Down syndrome isn’t difficult. So please do it.”

Ms. Brewer is a veteran actress best known for her groundbreaking work on the television series “American Horror Story.” Mr. Barbanell, who goes by Eddie, played Billy in the 2005 movie “The Ringer,” starring Johnny Knoxville. He and Ms. Brewer have performed onstage for much of their lives.

But taking on such a large and high-profile theater role is a completely new challenge.

“The biggest hurdle is the amount of dialogue and stage direction that comes all at once,” said Gail Williamson, Ms. Brewer’s agent, and a prominent advocate for performers with disabilities. “When you’re doing a television show or a film, you have a scene and you can work on that one scene. Doing theater, you have to have it all down.”

At the rehearsal space for the show, Ms. Brewer was going over lines with fellow cast members Debra Monk, Mark Blum and Vanessa Aspillaga. In the scene, Amy, wearing pink noise-canceling headphones as she watches a movie on her tablet, is visited by her two siblings, played by Ms. Monk and Mr. Blum. Ms. Aspillaga portrays a caretaker. Every few minutes, after a scene would start, the show’s veteran director, Scott Ellis, would interrupt to offer notes and tweak the blocking. Turn this way. Walk that way. React more.

The stops and starts were especially important for Ms. Brewer. The more repetition, the easier the memorization, and the more the scenes would be ingrained into her muscle memory.

“That was great, Jamie,” Mr. Ellis said. “Back it up one more time,”

Another stop, more direction and then repeat. Mr. Ellis kept offering words of encouragement to the cast, while Ms. Ferrentino sat nearby, taking notes on a notepad smaller than her hand. Occasionally, she would whisper to Mr. Ellis. Throughout the rehearsal, Ms. Brewer cracked jokes; nearby, Mr. Barbanell quietly observed.

The play is based on Amy Jacobs, Ms. Ferrentino’s aunt, who also had Down syndrome and is now deceased. When Ms. Ferrentino began writing the play, her process was complicated by the limits of her aunt’s verbal skills, which made creating dialogue a challenge. In 2015, she reached out to Ms. Williamson, whose entire client roster is made up of performers with disabilities. Ms. Williamson connected her with Ms. Brewer, who had just become the first person with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week. The playwright and the actress met for coffee and hit it off immediately.

Ms. Brewer told Ms. Ferrentino that when she had played characters with Down syndrome, she often had to cater to an audience’s expectations, regardless of her abilities. Immediately, Ms. Ferrentino decided that the play would be as much about Ms. Brewer as about her aunt.

“That informed how I wrote the play,” she said. She wanted to give Ms. Brewer room “as an actor, and a person, a chance to step outside that role and show the audience who she actually is.”

Ms. Brewer, an only child, grew up in Orange County, California, before moving near Houston, where she was involved with a local theater. She said she started performing around eighth grade, with her family’s support.

“Individuals with disabilities have different ways of coping with things,” Ms. Brewer said. Her way, she explained, was plunging into the arts, like her character, who must handle her father’s death.

After the play was written, the task was to find Ms. Brewer’s understudy. Ms. Williamson connected Ms. Ferrentino with Mr. Barbanell, who was living in Coral Springs, Fla.

For their first meeting, Ms. Ferrentino told him not to prepare anything; she just wanted to meet him. But Mr. Barbanell, accompanied by his mother, was ready with scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Julius Caesar,” “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet.” At a diner, he pushed his ice cream sundae aside and insisted on showing Ms. Ferrentino his skills.

Just like that, he won her over.

“He performed the most beautiful, word-perfect Shakespeare,” Ms. Ferrentino said. And instead of finding another Amy, Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis decided that Mr. Barbanell should occasionally be given his own performance dates — and when he played the lead, the play would be “Andy and the Orphans,” with some scenes rewritten for a male lead.

On the first day that the cast rehearsed in the actual performance space at the Laura Pels Theater on 46th Street, Mr. Barbanell, urged by Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis, stood up and enthusiastically recited Romeo’s balcony speech from “Romeo and Juliet.” (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”)

Encouragement for this cast was not in short supply, Mr. Barbanell noted.

“Because I have Down syndrome, I’m down and I’m up,” Mr. Barbanell said. “I’m like an elevator, and they brought me up,” he added, referring to Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis.

Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis have embarked on a learning process of their own. Neither had ever done anything like this. And it turned out not to be as daunting as it seemed.

“The questions that we had, so far, are, ‘What is it like having actors with Down syndrome in our professional rehearsal space?’” Ms. Ferrentino said. “Well, we’ve answered at least that question. It’s not that different. So the next question is, what would it be like to have them in performance? Who knows what the answer to that is?”

Mr. Ellis added, “That will be the next thing.”

Being an advocate for those with disabilities is a role Ms. Brewer and Mr. Barbanell take very seriously. They both want to open doors and change attitudes. Mr. Barbanell told a story about working as a bus boy at an assisted-living center, where he constantly heard epithets from his co-workers directed toward people with disabilities.

When he found out he was cast in “Amy and the Orphans,” Mr. Barbanell had a message for them on his way out the door: “Take a look at me now.”

[Photo by Nina Westervelt/NY Times]

 Doonesbury — Twitting.

Saturday, February 17, 2018