I planned on surprising the kids on Christmas with much-asked-for tickets to “Wicked.” We welcomed Christmas morning, however, having not slept, and it unraveled into a blur of wrapping paper and cups of coffee. The distinction of a gift of Broadway tickets would have been lost among slime and Beyblades and glitter lip gloss.
So I waited, and one night in January I was out to dinner with the three of them. They were behaving themselves but getting antsy as we waited on food; suddenly each wanted to sit next to me and not him or her, and silverware and water glasses were in the way of elbows.
“I have a fun surprise for you guys,” I said into the chaos, being practiced in the greatest parenting tool available: distraction. With big eyes they stopped squirming and stared at me.
“What is it?”
“OH MY GOD, IS IT A PHONE?!”
I broke it to them gently. “It is not a phone! You are not getting a phone!”
Their disappointed faces remained fixed on me. “I got us tickets to an autism-friendly performance of ‘Wicked!'”
“That is awesome!”
“Wait, autism-friendly?” Henry asked.
“Yes, it’s for people with autism and it’ll be easier for you–fewer loud noises and scary lights. And no one cares if you talk or have to get up.”
“Wait,” Henry said again. “Do you mean the rest of Broadway isn’t autism-friendly?”
Molly and Ellie giggled. They know it as well–Broadway and the rest of the world are not, as much as we’d like them to be, autism-friendly. We have gotten the stares and the comments from strangers. I have felt my face burn in the middle of a public scene. The restaurant we were seated in is as close to autism-friendly as the outside world gets, welcoming our family for years, meltdowns and crying and screaming and all. My experience is that much of the world is not as understanding.
“Well,” I started, “No. It’s not. Broadway shows usually aren’t, but these are special performances–and it’s going to be so good. This is such a fun show!” I didn’t know how long I should stay on the autism part of the conversation.
“That’s interesting,” Henry said and paused as he thought about this. “Ok, ‘Wicked.'” That seemed to be enough for him too. “Great.”
This past rainy Super Bowl Sunday, we were at the show. My husband was traveling for work, so I invited a babysitter to join us. (Truth: if I had known my husband would not be around for “Wicked,” I would not have bought tickets. Autism-friendly or not, I would not try again to bring the three kids to Broadway.) I had a moment of panic when, as we were entering the Gershwin Theater, Henry refused to exit the revolving door.
And then I saw the faces and purple t-shirts of the volunteers from Theatre Development Fund (TDF) Autism Friendly Performances staffing the lobby.
It is joyous when you are in a place you belong, where your child belongs. It is the overwhelming sensation of relief. This was gratitude for every person around us, all who understood or related to my family. And this was tinged with a confidence I rarely feel in public, the source of which, at the time, I could not name. Later, I knew it to be the potential we have to be kind to one another.
As we reached the second floor, a volunteer was ready to hand each of my kids a squishy neon stress/sensory ball. After negotiating for the best colors, the kids, the babysitter, and I waited in one of the “activity areas” among the kids, teens, and adults all holding their sensory toys.
Seated, my babysitter and I bookended the kids, with Henry next to me. My babysitter is young and energetic, so I made her take the kids to the lobby to get snacks as I read the Playbill.
Henry asked me immediately when he came back with M&Ms and Oreos, “So if I need to get up and walk out, that’s ok, right?” How right it is to be where you are welcome.
My daughters were not worried that something would derail us. Molly did not plead to stay home rather than risk something “scary” happening. They were easy and excited and chatting over each other in their seats, occasionally their eyes following volunteers showing people to their seats. They were also on their way to a sugar high. Either way, the smiles were real.
“Wicked” is an enduring success because its story of being different, misunderstood, of being vulnerable speaks to us. It reminds us of the misleading nature of labels we use and the stories we tell, the people those hurt. We believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.
In troubled and troubling times, a nuanced tale of friendship and courage reminds us of how capable we humans are, of treachery and redemption.
We were all standing as the cast took its final bow; each actor on stage smiled, waved, and with obvious and beaming pride, held up the same squishy stress ball that had been given to the audience.
Something bad may be happening in Oz, but for two hours and 30 minutes, something wonderful happened in the Gershwin Theatre.
The music and lyrics of “Wicked” are by Stephen Schwartz; its book is by Winnie Holzman.
[Note: This event was in no way sponsored. I was not given tickets, and I have not had any contact with anyone at TDF, the Gershwin Theatre, or associated with “Wicked.” Opinions are solely my own. I am writing about this autism-friendly performance to share our experience and so other families may enjoy future performances.]