Naomi Grossman is not what I expected.
For one, I hadn’t done much digging around, but I assumed she was disabled when I arrived at Cripping the Comic-Con this week. And if she wasn’t, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Arriving for her performance on Wednesday morning, I was surprised. Not only was I surprised, I was delighted.
Naomi’s one woman show “Carnival Oddities: Love, Lust, and Other Human Oddities” turns the freakshow trope on its head, and the dumps it in the river sending it far far away from where it began. How’s that? She takes the ordinary experience of dating, and reminds us that normal people – able bodied people – are freaks too.
But it was when I got to sit down with her personally that I really got to appreciate the kind of woman that Naomi Grossman is.
I asked her about her time on American Horror Story – I asked how she felt about the upcoming AHS: Freak Show. I asked how she experienced playing Pepper.
According to Naomi – “I got to my makeup chair at 5am, closed my eyes, and opened them as Pepper” because the makeup process took up to 3 hours to transform her from Naomi to Pepper.
I asked if she’d had an opportunity to work with someone who was microcephalic, and while she did not have that opportunity (which I wish she would have, both for herself, and for the disabled community at large), she spoke of being at a movie theater and seeing a woman who was microcephalic sitting in front of her. It was clear, that while Naomi wanted to speak with her at that time, she wanted to ask the woman about her life – she made the choice, wisely I feel, to let the woman enjoy her movie.
This is what I think makes Naomi Grossman accessible and welcomed by the disabled community. What we see in Naomi is not a person who chooses to play a disabled character, and who wants to exploit our differences – we see a person who is genuinely appreciative of being brought into the world of the disabled. She is respectful, she is humble, and above all, she is talented. She took the time to do research, she was provided with an acting coach, and she truly embodied Pepper in a way which the disabled community is unusually pleased with.
As I said at the top, I didn’t realize when I arrived that Naomi was able bodied – and now I can say that I am aware of an actress who can play a disabled character, give them dignity, and appreciate the challenges of doing so.
From what Naomi said, I suspect that while I will likely struggle with some of the representations of disability on “Freak Show” I hope that I will not be angered.
That being said, my concerns with “Freak Show” are the traditional horror treatment of people with disabilities. I hope that we can step away from notions of disability as the horror, and rather putting people with disabilities into the horror situations. The balance is delicate, but one that I hope Ryan Murphy and his production crew can balance and manage. While Glee does not have a good record on this, I hope that AHS can do better.
Naomi Grossman treated Pepper with respect. She treats the disabled community with respect, and she is clearly humbled to be welcomed into our community. She was willing to answer questions, and willing to discuss her discomfort with taking on a disability as a performance – I will look forward to watching her career.
Thank you so much for your time, Naomi. It was a pleasure.