Author, disability activist and actress Susan Nussbaum dies at 68, after full career of pushing boundaries – Chicago Tribune

In person, on stage or on the page, Susan Nussbaum was a delight, a fiercely talented actress, writer and passionate disability activist. She could be, if necessary, deadly serious, but she also possessed great good humor, a keen intelligence and a playful nature.

Nussbaum died Thursday at her Lakeview apartment, surrounded by friends and family. She was 68 years old.

“She had been suffering from complications from pneumonia for some time,” said her older sister, Karen, a union organizer and activist. “She was in hospital for a while, then in hospice, but she died at home and it was appropriate. Susan was fiercely independent and hilarious, a beautiful writer and a committed activist. She was fearless .

Over three decades ago, Susan and I sat together in the lobby of the old Remains Theater and talked about her new play, ‘The Plucky and Spunky Show’, a comedy revue about disabilities written with Mike Erwin . (I had unfortunately missed his playwriting debut, “Staring Back” at the Second City etc Stage).

She said, in that captivating and candid way she had, “Writing is such a pain.”

She knew the pain but rarely let it go. At the age of 24, she was hit by a car which deprived her of the use of her legs and partial use of her arms and forced her to use a wheelchair. Still reluctant to talk about the accident, that night she opened up about acting, saying, “It’s a big lie for actors to come out on stage. What I’m talking about is personal. It’s not painful. »

Susan Ruth Nussbaum was born in Chicago on December 12, 1953 and grew up in Highland Park. The youngest of three children born to Myron (Mike) and Annette Nussbaum, she attended Highland Park High School and was surely influenced when her father, who worked in the extermination business, started an acting career.

He joined the then burgeoning local theater scene, embarking on a career as an actor/director on stage and in films that would make him – still working at 98 – among the most admired and beloved people in the world. art scene. Susan’s mother was also a big influencer, activist and public relations expert with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Environmental Protection Agency.

After high school, Susan moved to Chicago and began acting classes at Roosevelt University and later at what was then the Goodman School of Drama, run by the Art Institute.

Her “Staring Back” was at Second City in 1984 and I first saw her on stage as Gertrude Stein in Frank Galati’s production of “She Always Said, Pablo,” which premiered at the Goodman Theater in 1987.

I met her a few years later with her remarkable “The Plucky and Spunky Show”, in which she also acted. As I wrote for the Tribune at the time, “It forever changed the way I see and think about people with disabilities… (in) a series of sketches and sketches, touching and hilarious. Directing actors with disabilities and actresses with disabilities…it gave me a new vision of the world.”

Next is “Mishuganismo,” a solo show she stars in, “a captivating journey through her life, a crazy-sad-happy whirlwind of politics, activism, love, need, sex, and other elements. … solid, safe and stunning.

As she told me about this show, “It was my father’s idea. For years I had written very personal letters to my brother. He made copies that he sent to my sister who made copies for my parents. My father said I should combine them with all the other writings I had on hand. “Put structure to it,” he said. So I did.

Said her father, following his daughter’s death, “When I directed Susan on this show, it made me realize who my daughter was even more – a remarkable, sensitive, funny woman.”

Her brother Jack remembers these letters and says, “Susan had a great sense of humor, a huge heart, a thirst for justice and a gift for language that could convey almost anything. She faced adversity and fought to overcome it on her terms.

Her last produced play was “No One as Nasty”, at the Victory Gardens Theater in 2000. Although she continued to act and direct, she devoted an increasing amount of her time and energy to advocacy organizations people with disabilities, with whom she has long been involved. For Access Living, she created Empowered FeFesa series of award-winning documentaries.

“Susan broke down barriers when she founded Empowered FeFes, the first-ever sexuality support group for girls and young women with disabilities,” said her daughter Taina Rodriguez. “It was a safe, personal and open space to talk about things you couldn’t talk about at home. For me personally, this group showed me how to embrace my sexuality and how powerful it is to be a disabled woman.

For this and other efforts, she was honored as one of Utne Reader “50 visionaries changing your world” in 2008.

Frustrated by the theatrical scene, she directs her literary talents towards fiction. His first novel was ‘Good Kings, Bad Kings’ and although still in manuscript, it won the prestigious 2012 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Involved Fiction. This book is the story of a group of handicapped children in a Chicago institution. Novelist Rosellen Brown wrote of it, “The voices that compel (this novel) are so rich in language and feeling that they command the ear and – a word I rarely use – the heart. The lives of his characters are difficult, but miraculously his novel is full of energy and fierce spirit, a celebration of strength, dignity and the cathartic pleasure of telling it like it is.

In 2020, Nussbaum was co-writer and co-producer of the documentary, “Monster Code”, and last year it was announced that “Good Kings, Bad Kings” was being adapted into a movie for Netflix.

“Susan has combined activism and art to extraordinary effect,” said Tribune theater critic Chris Jones. “I still remember a powerful production she directed in 1999 called ‘The History of Bowling’ (by Mike Ervin, with whom she would co-write ‘The Plucky and Spunky Show’) which was intended to force the audience to confront her condescension towards people with disabilities All of Susan’s work was way ahead of her time.

Susan is survived by her father, sister, brother and one daughter, Taina Rodriguez. His mother died in 2003. A memorial service is planned for the summer.

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Lola R. McClure