‘The Climb’ dramatizes trauma, adaptation, and hope for the blind
Photo by Greg Shane

CULVER CITY — Three chairs, a few simple props, a sound score, some professional theatrical lighting and video, and two actors reflecting in word and song on the condition of going blind. The Climb takes us to places of despair and self-pity; and after nodes of catharsis in their stories, to a newer terrain of confidence, joy, and hope for the future. To make the best of what life hands you—perhaps this is in the end the inspirational lesson we all need to grasp.

The Climb (seen Dec. 1) is the latest production from Theater by the Blind, and the most personal, most heartfelt production in its history. Director Greg Shane has worked with two of his actors to explore their own stories, of how they lost their sight—Maliaka Mitchell to retinopathy and Ronnie Chism to uveitis—and how they have rebuilt their lives not to be solely defined by their blindness.

The entire show runs under an hour, yet the feeling, the terror, the playfulness, and adjustment to a new permanent reality fill the room and satisfy a theatergoer with a complete experience. No one will go away wanting more—except to see these exceptional people in other, future shows. We have seen them both before, in last year’s company musical The Braille Legacy.

Theater by the Blind is one project among several promoted by ArtsUP! LA, a nonprofit theater and arts program serving people with disabilities, military veterans, and opportunity youth. “We remove barriers to participation and provide unlimited possibilities for artistic expression, building diverse artists and audiences who are changing how the arts are presented and experienced.” Pioneers in the visibility and inclusion movement, they invite audiences into their intimate 50-seat theater when they’re not on the road, or in schools with their educational programs.

For sighted people, The Climb might well be a good place to start if you have ever wondered what is it like to exist in the world without vision. Could you find rewarding employment? Could you get around on your own, pursue an education, hold down a job, make friends, find love, raise a family, play sports?

Sit back and let these two blind actors tell you about their lives, using original rap, poetry, spoken word, and classic songs to share their most vulnerable moments. The Climb is named for the country-pop Miley Cyrus song that lit up the 2009 film Hannah Montana: The Movie.

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes you’re gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb
Yeah, yeah

Keep on moving, keep climbing
Keep the faith, baby
It’s all about, it’s all about the climb
Keep your faith, keep your faith

One biographical feature that both performers have in common is the loss of their mother at an all too early age. As a device to get some of the impact of that event into the show, Mitchell and Chism wrote imaginary letters from their fathers to begin sorting out the difficult psychological aftereffects of these losses. Recitation of these fictive letters forms an early platform to their truthful individual and collective narratives, as they gradually accept the condition of blindness not as a final destiny but as a journey toward a greater, wholesome sense of self.

Photo by Greg Shane

As the show progresses, we observe telling gestures where the two actors reach out, helping one another find their position on stage. Certain “marks” on stage also help: The chairs already pre-set and the strategically placed carpeting, for example, orient the actors. A moving chemistry is obvious between the two performers. I imagine they are good friends off stage as well.

The group process in developing and rehearsing a play, the support system, and the work ethic, have made all the company performers stronger and more responsible. The fact that finally these two actors have dug deep into their personal histories and opened themselves up to discussing their narratives publicly has helped them, therapeutically one could say, grow into more resolute control over their own lives.

Born in Brooklyn, Ronnie Chism left New York at the age of three and moved from state to state with his mother. They eventually landed in Southern California. He enjoyed doing theater in high school, never imagining it would open the door to anything like a career. After losing his sight, he discovered Theater by the Blind and got his start as an actor. He is also an independent hip-hop artist who goes by “Talk Show the Visionary,” his lyrics and very presence enlightening all who come to hear him.

Maliaka (pron. Ma-LY-ka) Mitchell, was born in Los Angeles, and her mother died when she was two. She was raised by other family members. She appeared in Nickelodeon’s Queen Bee and was also featured in Reading Rainbow when she was seven years old. Only at the age of 25 did she first experience the symptoms of blindness, which resulted in a rapid, total loss of vision. Her participation in Theater by the Blind led to a recent gig on Netflix. Before engaging with the theater company, she related in a talkback after the show, “I didn’t know I had this talent.” A firm Christian, Maliaka incorporated a standard hymn into her portion of the play. “I may be blind but never bitter,” she tells us.

Among the most effective scenes in the play is the one where Ronnie describes what it’s like to father a little girl, feed her, play hide-and-seek games with her, and slowly educate her from a place of not knowing what the sense of sight is, to the realization that there’s something not right about daddy’s eyes, to the understanding that he is blind. She is eight years old now and already developing her own freestyling rap skills.

“The failure is not trying,” the performers state, as one of a number of memorable mottos. “Never lose sight of who you are.”

My only critical reservation is that as much of a challenge as it must have been to memorize their scripts (from constantly replaying a tape), the performers often sounded as though they were reciting more than acting. They didn’t give the words time and pacing to breathe and sink in, milking their own affecting words for their emotional resonance.

A promo news story on the show can be accessed here. A video of Miley Cyrus singing “The Climb” can be viewed here.

Two performances of The Climb remain, on Fri., Dec. 8, and Sat., Dec. 9 at 8:00 p.m. The Blue Door Theater is located at 9617 Venice Blvd., Culver City 90232. For tickets and other information, see here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.