Underestimating Nerissa Jheanelle is a big mistake. Those who do give Jheanelle, a senior Wright State University theatre studies major who has cerebral palsy, the fuel for a creative fire that has resulted in a dazzling array of work.
In the past two years, Jheanelle has written a play and had it produced as a staged reading; conceived a dance piece choreographed by a close friend and turned into a video; created a movie script; and written the book and lyrics for a new musical that was performed and will be turned into a movie.
W. Stuart McDowell, professor and artistic director of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, said Jheanelle has created a body of work unlike any other he has seen in his two dozen years as teacher and administrator.
“In each of these creations — a play, a dance, a movie, a musical — this remarkable young lady has found a voice that is both insightful and profound,” said McDowell. “It’s a voice that speaks to us, to challenge us, to bring us to a greater understanding of something that is beyond the experience of most of us. It goes to the heart of what creative expression should be — something quite extraordinary.”
Asked what makes her tick, Jheanelle said: “When people underestimate me and only see me for my disability. …Ten years from now I would like to be in a successful acting career and entertainer.”
When Tom Hanks visited Wright State in 2016, a question from Jheanelle about roles for “an aspiring actress with a disability” prompted him to give his most animated and poignant response.
“What does a successful actress look like? It looks just like you. What does a working actress look like? It looks like you,” Hanks told Jheanelle. “Someone out there is going to say, ‘You know what we need? We need a woman of color in a wheelchair that communicates in a way that makes us all lean in and listen. Where are we going to find somebody like that?’ Well then you’d answer that audition and you’d be perfect for it. All of us have some degree of individuality that is going to be the spark that elevates some project from the standard to the extraordinary.”
Jheanelle was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 14 months old. As she was growing up, her parents nurtured her love of theatre.
“My Mom and Dad used to make puppets and cut out all the characters of fairytales and act them out for me,” she said.
When she got older she played numerous roles in local theatre companies, from a mama in “Fiddler on the Roof” to a captain in “James and the Giant Peach.” At Wright State, she appeared as a flower vendor in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“I do this because I feel free,” she said. “I can be anything in my chair, and the audience doesn’t look at me, they look at the role I am playing.”
About two years ago, Jheanelle came to McDowell, a Frederick A. White Distinguished Professor of Professional Service, with an idea for a play. She told McDowell that she wanted to “show people a vulnerable side and showing people where I came from and that I don’t want to hide anymore.”
Her visions became an autobiographical drama called “I Am A Warrior,” which was staged as a reading in the fall of 2017.
The following spring, Jheanelle conceived a dance piece titled “Becoming a Skyscraper Again.” This vision was brought to life by senior dance major Halle Augenstein. The dance was turned into a video by motion pictures major Jeff Gardina.
Then Jheanelle worked with her friend and assistant director Monica Impson rehearsing Jheanelle’s original musical “The Purpose of a Warrior Princess.” A staged reading will be presented in the Directing Lab in the Creative Arts Center on Saturday, April 20, at 2 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
In her play “I Am A Warrior,” Jheanelle created the character of Nunu, a 22-year-old woman with cerebral palsy who is unflagging in her quest to discover who she is and where she came from.
In the final scene, Nunu turns to the audience and says: “I wanted to show you what this journey brought me to. I overcame a lot and I know why God has given me a place on this earth, to give each of you this message: No matter what, you can overcome obstacles and challenges. I am living proof of that. I am a warrior.”