Jennifer A. Kokai has previously written “Bird Brains” for Plan-B’s portion of ROSE EXPOSED: FLIGHT and the monologues “Mitch” and “Janine” for (IN)DIVISIBLE. Jenny is an Associate Professor at Weber State University, where she teaches playwriting.
When I was asked to write a play for Plan-B’s Free Elementary School Tour, I immediately turned to the closest elementary expert: my (now) eleven-year-old son.
But Oliver is not a typical elementary-aged kid. He has the verbal comprehension skills of someone in college. As the child of a theatre professor, he has seen Stoppard’s ARCADIA and Ibsen’s HEDDA GABBLER. He’s a sophisticated yet generous audience member. But when we’ve seen plays aimed at folks his age, he is often troubled by simplistic storylines and banal morals. Kids, he tells me, deal with real problems and these plays rarely offer an opportunity to think through a difficult situation or learn how to function better in real life.
Oliver also has learning and emotional disabilities that have challenged me as a parent: there is nothing more heartbreaking than not being able to give your child what he needs. In kindergarten, Oliver exasperated his teachers with incessant questions, impulse control issues, difficulty relating to other children, and disinterest in assigned work and procedures. We changed schools for first grade, but things got worse. The more his teacher criticized him, the more anxious he became about messing up, and the more he messed up. We changed schools for second and third grade: the pattern continued. Oliver began to talk about harming himself and wanting to die. So, outside of work and school, we hid in the house where it was safe.
As Oliver began fourth grade, extensive and complicated testing found that although he was profoundly gifted in some areas, his anxiety had become severe (especially in relation to school) and crossed over into Depression. He was also diagnosed with minor ADHD and dysgraphia, all of which was hindering his “processing speed”—the ability to do rote and repetitive tasks—which tested at 7% of capability. Though he is not on the Autism Spectrum—he was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder—his symptoms mirror those who are, and require similar skills building and accommodation. He was bored in school, depressed, lonely, bullied, and his teacher saw him as willfully defiant. We shared the test results and asked for accommodations, but his teacher became increasingly hostile, encouraging other children to isolate and belittle him. Although my husband and I both work full time, we began homeschooling him. This allowed us to give him an environment free from bullying, to select work that challenges him, to give him plenty of breaks to build his processing skills. Oliver feels safe. He no longer talks about hurting himself. And we no longer feel the need to hide.
When I asked him to write a play with me, he decided he wanted to write about his Generalized Anxiety Disorder. So ZOMBIE THOUGHTS is from his perspective, structured like a video game, teaching the calming techniques he learned in therapy he feels help him the most.
Also, it’s funny. Hard things are easier if you laugh.
I believe we need to produce more plays by playwrights with disabilities, to create theatre that truly represents their lives and is welcoming to those with disabilities. I also believe we need to respect the intelligence of children and take seriously their issues and points of view.
Oliver’s voice is often silenced because of his disability. While I may have ensured the play is dramaturgically sound and structured and typed up the final dialogue, every idea, belief, character, and choice in the play is his.
I feel very, very lucky to have an opportunity to help his voice be heard.
ZOMBIE THOUGHTS, co-written with her son Oliver Kokai-Means, receives its world premiere as Plan-B’s sixth annual Free Elementary School Tour, serving 8,000 elementary students, grades K-6, at 46 schools in 12 counties beginning October 1. Click here for details and to see about bringing ZOMBIE THOUGHTS to your school.