By Brooke Lewitas
Boston University News Service
“Colossal” is a show anyone can relate to. It’s about relationships, overcoming obstacles, and believing in yourself. In a literal sense, it’s about a young man’s football career coming to an abrupt end when he is in a devastating accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. But really it’s about connections and relationships between men.
However, for Jacques Matellus, who plays the main character, Older Mike, the themes of the show are deeply personal as well as universal. He, like his character, sustained a spinal cord injury in an accident and uses a wheelchair.
Casting a disabled actor in Mike’s role was something that the playwright, Andrew Hinderaker, mandated in the show notes. So when Director and Head of Movement at Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theater Yo-EL Cassell decided to take the show on, he was relentless in searching for an actor who could breathe emotional truth into the role.
Cassell’s personal network — which is quite large, having taught movement at nearly a dozen dance schools — eventually led him to Matellus. And when the two met over Zoom, it was an instant connection.
“I saw Older Mike right there,” Cassel said. “The way he was talking about his story with such vulnerability. I could sense there was something really interesting there.”
Cassell knew the value of putting disabled creatives in roles. He was born with nerve deafness, which made it difficult for him to express himself as a child.
“But,” he explained. “When I was around three years old, I discovered movement as an expressive channel. I felt like I could hear for the first time. And I developed this hunger for movement.”
This discovery led him on a path to explore storytelling through movement: particularly, he says, “how movement can reveal”.
“Colossal” would give him an opportunity to portray the revelatory power of movement, but when he first read it he didn’t know if it would be right.
“At first I said, oh, football, I didn’t have much experience with that. That world was quite distant. But then I read this one line towards the end that [Mike’s] father says, ‘Your body is a vehicle for language.’ And I said, yes, I’ll do it.”
Cassell, Matellus, and the rest of the cast and crew would soon begin to explore the duality of “beauty and brutality”, and how the worlds of football and ballet intersect. In the play, protagonist Older Mike is a football star and his father is a ballet teacher, which creates tension between them, especially after Mike gets hurt.
Tension, Matellus says, that he has seen in his own life in different ways. The role hits home for him in many ways, which he says can be “overwhelming”, but according to Matellus, the entire cast and crew made sure that he felt comfortable playing the role.
After all, he was going to be reliving traumatic events in rehearsal for months. But for him, it wasn’t painful to tap into his feelings around his injury.
“You can’t really get away from it,” he said. “I definitely relate to Older Mike in a lot of ways. And if I don’t relate to him 100% in the script, there were times [in my life] where I was at the same place where he was, so I completely get how he feels, and how to process those emotions.”
He elaborated, “It’s been almost reliving past experiences, revisiting how I felt before the injury and right after. This is the kind of thing that you can’t just have a time limit of when you can move past it. It’s hard to let go of the life that you lived before. Mike deals with this in the play, and I deal with this in my life, so when characters in the play have advice for Mike, I take it really personally. It usually rings true for myself too.”
This is why, Matellus and Cassell believe, disabled actors should always be given opportunities to act in roles that portray their disability.
“Even if it’s a case of someone who isn’t a trained actor, but they’re in a wheelchair, I think they have more truth than someone who is just doing research to do the role. Yes, you can act, but you can never actually live that truth, no matter how much of a method actor you are,” Matellus said.
“Colossal,” directed by Yo-EL Cassell and starring Jacques Matellus, will be performed in the Joan and Edgar Booth Theater from Nov. 4 through Nov. 6.