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Thursday November 29, 2012

A quick-minded writer, activist who refused to back down

Ferocious dramatist born with cerebral palsy wrote touching, funny plays about how disabled see themselves in a world of so-called perfect people

It was opening night in New York. Canadian playwright David Freeman, then 28, was celebrating at Sardi's.

His dark and disturbingly funny play Creeps, about handicapped characters taking a refuge in a washroom at a rehabilitation centre, had received a standing ovation.

It had been a hit in Canada and earned Freeman the Floyd S. Chalmers award for best play of 1973, but he was nervous about being interviewed. In his slow, tortured speech, he told a reporter how excited he was about having a play on Broadway.

Then he threw up.

Freeman, who died Nov. 14 in Montreal, was the ferocious and funny dramatist who chronicled his experience of living with cerebral palsy in a series of dark and disturbing stage plays that, as well as Creeps, included Battering Ram, You're Going to Be All Right Jamie Boy, and Flytrap. Ground-breaking works, they offered a touching yet often funny glimpse of how the disabled see themselves in a world of so-called perfect people.

Although his speech was painfully slurred, Freeman's mind was quick.

Once asked how someone suffering from cerebral palsy could write a play, he exploded and, in his contorted manner, replied: "I don't. Suffer. From. Anything. I suffer. Because. Ignorant. People ask. Me. Questions like that."

Actor David Ferry, who befriended the playwright after appearing in the original production of Jamie Boy, described him as "an odd, iconic figure in his own right.

"He refused to back down. David never quite fit 100 per cent into the theatre. He was a loner. He was an in-your-face kind of guy, and he never made any apologies for it.

"If you think about the anger and the theatricality of his plays, and about the era in which they were produced, it really is remarkable. He was angry and funny, and uniquely interesting, but he never went beyond his first three plays."

David Freeman was born with cerebral palsy in Toronto on Jan. 7, 1945, and grew up in Sunnyside School for the handicapped, where he showed a precocious aptitude for writing.

"Writing has been my life," he said shortly before he died.

"If I stop writing, it will be because I have stopped breathing."

At 17, Freeman wrote an article about the struggle of the disabled, The World of Can't. After it appeared in Macleans, the CBC commissioned Freeman to turn the piece into a television script but network brass cancelled the show because they feared a negative audience reaction to characters in what he described as a "spastic club."

Tarragon Theatre's artistic director Bill Glassco then encouraged Freeman to rewrite the piece for the stage.

The result was staged to critical acclaim in Edmonton, Vancouver and in Montreal but New York theatre critics gave it mixed reviews even though Freeman was to receive the 1974 Drama Desk award as best new playwright.

They agreed that, while Freeman deserved a lot of respect for writing an "unavoidably touching" play, it was too sordid to have widespread box-office appeal.

Actor Frank Moore, who was in the original cast, said Freeman was "a revolution and a revelation at the same time. His artistry shattered the misconceptions of society toward the handicapped, revealing at the same time the humanity trapped beneath the surface of all of us.

"I can't imagine his spirit ever 'resting in peace,' so I wish him eternal adventure in the afterlife."

Freeman moved to Montreal in 1975 when the Segal Centre staged a production of Flytrap. He wrote Year of the Soul, a radio play about Brother André, founder of the city's landmark Saint Joseph Oratory (made a saint in 2010), but never recaptured the success he enjoyed as a younger man.

He also produced thousands of poems, yet to be published. For example, when the Canadian Repertory Theatre expressed interest in reviving Creeps several years ago, he wrote:

"I am being resurrected.

Taken down from the attic.

Dusted off. Put on the mantel.

I am being resurrected.

Plugged in to see if I will still light.

Or if I am just a bundle of loose connections."

Freeman was an active participant in the growing debate over a patient's right to die and legalized euthanasia.

He vehemently opposed assisted suicide.

"The disabled are having trouble getting employment, getting housing, being taken seriously. But governments don't want to talk about that ... " Freeman said.

"They don't think about people like John Milton, who was blind, or Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind - look at the vast contribution they made to society.

"They don't look at Franklin D. Roosvelt who led his country through World War II from his wheelchair. No. They give all this publicity to misguided people who commit suicide. Pretty soon they're going to have trading cards of all these people who courageously committed suicide."

Freeman attempted a comeback with a punk-rock musical, Anarchy's Child, which was given a reading at Montreal's Infinitheatre six years ago, but was never been produced.

Despite his disabilities, he remained upbeat to the end.

"I'm not crying about my life. I think I have a very good life," he said.

"I'm very proud of what I've done."

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