Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

A tribute to playwright John Belluso

Ann Stocking
E-mail: annstocking@earthlink.net

I was crazy about John Belluso. I called him Tennessee and I wanted him to call me Carson. If he wasn't gay, I could have easily seen myself marrying someone that startlingly smart. (Never underestimate the sexiness of smart.) I was lucky enough, though, to have a possibly even more intimate relationship with John than that of wife – the relationship of that between an actress and a playwright. I was the vessel that carried the words that flew from his head to the page to his audience. I incarnated characters that represented his thoughts and ideals. For a few hours on stage each night, I, in a sense, became him.

John was truly supportive of other disabled artists and he was particularly supportive of me. One day I was having a difficult time with an able-bodied man who was directing me in one of John's plays. (I felt the director was not understanding a very delicate, nuanced moment that John wrote about the disability experience. Not even trying to get it, really.) I wrote John a secret note with one word on it – "Help!" -- and slipped it to him during a break in rehearsal. He wrote me back: "You have the best theatre instincts of anyone I have ever met. Trust yourself." It was a truly gold-standard moment from a friend that I don't think will be repeated.

John was so very charming and so very smart – and so very disabled – that one wanted to somehow make things right for him. If I have any regret about our friendship, it would be the moment when John asked my advice about looking "hipper" for the Hollywood life he was about to become a part of. I looked at John's appearance with a critical eye and saw that his eyeglasses were once again sitting askew on his face. Part of John's disability resulted in his having a fairly large head – one that even the largest standard eyeglasses wouldn't fit. Having seen the magic of theatre and television myself, I knew that anything could be manufactured for any purpose if it was needed for a set location. So I ventured the opinion that he should get a pair of eyeglasses that fit his head. I was sure they could be made somewhere, and I saw no reason in the world that this brilliant man shouldn't have what he needed – what he deserved, actually – glasses that fit. John's reaction wasn't as enthusiastic as I had hoped for. After all, I felt it was a really great idea. Given his response though, I dropped it – with the full intention of finding out how to order custom manufactured glasses the next day. I spoke to a mutual friend about my fabulous idea of getting John glasses that fit his head, and was a little surprised when she said, "You know, John's glasses sitting kind of funny on his face is one of the things I like best about him. It's part of who he is to me." At that moment I recognized John's lack of enthusiasm for my idea for what it was. He innately understood that a large part of his charm lay in his asymmetry – things not exactly fitting on him, and him not exactly fitting in the world. Those crooked glasses gave him the keen eye that saw the injustices and inequities of the world that he wrote so beautifully about in his plays. It truly would have been a shame if John ever did get glasses that fit.

John was one of the most truly socially conscious people I have ever met. I arrived at his apartment in a downtown Los Angeles high-rise one day to find him staring at a large bag of aluminum cans. He had a rather earnest whine in his voice, and he said, "Ann, I don't know what to do with all these caaaaans." I asked him if they had a recycling bin downstairs, in which case I could have brought them down for him. He told me no, that they only had a general trash dumpster. He was very distressed. I said to him, "John, look – you are wicked disabled. You are exempt from recycling. Throw the cans away." He seemed so very relieved. I think to this day it was the most helpful thing I have ever done for him.

After John died, I reluctantly questioned whether I knew him at all. Or as much as I realized I wanted to. After all, he never told me what lay in his secret heart. We laughed, we ate good food, drank martinis and laughed some more. And we shared a life in the theatre, which is a whole different kind of intimacy. But he never said, "Gee Ann, I really want a man to have a deep, abiding love for me." Or, "I'm desperately lonely, Ann, and I wish someone would see me for all that I am." Or, "Gee Ann, I want what everyone else seems to have, but it doesn't seem possible for me." Then I realized that he had revealed his secret heart to me. It is in every one of his plays. It is in the relationship between Gretty and Dr. Henry (Gretty Good Time), Randolph Bourne and Esther (The Body of Bourne), and Harry and Louise (Pyretown) -- all his plays toying with the idea of two people believing that love is bigger than a strange-looking, broken down body. That love is the greatest force in the world. Love for one's fellow man. Love for your beloved. The only force that can stop these stupid, stupid wars. John wrote beautiful, angry plays. He was a beautiful, angry person who had the anger of the righteous. The anger of one who knows he is right and knows how important it is that people see that.

John's mission was a big one. Too big, perhaps, for someone who's health was probably always on the verge of collapse. John was powerful, though. For all the talk about how diplomatic and charming he was, (and he truly was,) John was also never afraid to make a demand. He demanded more of the world and he made the world demand more of itself. He was the embodiment of the iron fist in the velvet glove. I hope in his memory and in his spirit, we will all keep on swinging.

Biographical Note: Ann Stocking is an actress in Los Angeles, Calif.  She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from UCLA.  She appeared in John Belluso's The Body of Bourne at the Mark Taper Forum and was Gretty in Belluso's Gretty Good Time at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Calif. 

Copyright (c) 2006 Ann Stocking

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