‘Differently abled’ and very funny
Comedian Maysoon Zayid often begins a show by saying, “I got 99 problems and palsy is just one. I’m Palestinian, Muslim, a woman of color, and [pause] — I live in New Jersey.”
It kills every time, including last week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the world-famous comic and disability advocate delivered an hour-long talk followed by a relaxed conversation with the audience in an extended Q&A session. Zayid then drew a long line of audience members, Elizabeth Warren-style, to come up and pose for a selfie. She chatted warmly in Arabic or English with each person who responded to her invitation.
The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, has turned her experience negotiating the planet as a member of multiple minority groups into potent comedy and advocacy.
Zayid is the co-founder of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and the Muslim Funny Fest. Her 2014 TED Talk has drawn nearly 15 million viewers. Zayid spends three months a year in Palestine, running an arts program that builds self-esteem and resilience in disabled and orphaned children living in refugee camps.
Seated on a stool, striking in a blue mini dress, Zayid moved through a fast-paced series of anecdotes that were often fierce and funny at the same time. As she took the audience through formative moments in her life, she punctuated each episode with facts and figures on injustices toward children and adults with disabilities.
After explaining the cause of her cerebral palsy, a botched C-section by an inebriated doctor that deprived her of oxygen for minutes during birth, Zayid riffed on the occasional benefits of her condition, such as skipping the two-hour waiting lines at Disney World to take repeated spins on her favorite ride, the whirling teacups.
Describing her mother as a Julia Roberts look-alike and her father as a double for Saddam Hussein, Zayid pointed out that thanks to him, she is one of the few people with cerebral palsy who can walk. “When I was 5 years old, my father would place my heels on his feet and we just walked, or he would dangle a dollar bill in front of me and have me chase it — bringing out my inner stripper.” Commenting on Arabic names, Zayid said, “Parents lie. When I was little, they told me my name meant ‘beautiful flower.’ Later, I learned it means ‘lemur.’”
“I was never bullied or made fun of,” Zayid said of being raised in New Jersey, where her best friend proudly took her to Midnight Mass at the local Catholic church, telling her family, “She’s from where Jesus was born.”
As a senior at Arizona State University, after three years of never having a lead role in a production, she thought her time had come when the theater department decided to stage a play about a young woman with cerebral palsy. But the director turned her down. “He told me I wouldn’t be able to do the stunts. I told him that if I couldn’t do them, neither would the character!” After audience laughter died down, Zayid said, “Hollywood has a sordid history of casting non-disabled actors in playing disabled parts … This tells us, ‘You do not belong.’”
“I am differently abled,” said Zayid, who then described an encounter with police when, as the designated driver, she was heading home with friends from a late-night party. Police stopped the car and suspecting she was drunk, demanded that she walk a straight line. Explaining that her cerebral palsy made it impossible for her to do that, Zayid offered to instead recite the alphabet in reverse. Impressed, they sent her off. “I didn’t know how lucky I was,” Zayid said. “Some 50% of people killed by law enforcement officers are disabled.”
Comedy was not her intended career path. “I was a drama queen,” she said, and from childhood she dreamed of acting on daytime soap operas.
Setbacks hurt, but they did not stop her, even cruel social media comments on her shaking and occasional slurred speech due to cerebral palsy while she was a contributor to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” She said, “Only you get to define you,” and for her that included pursuing her love of tap dancing. “My parents couldn’t afford physical therapy, so they sent me to dancing lessons.” While in an acting internship in New York City, she told the teacher that her dream was to join tap-dancer Savion Glover’s Broadway show, “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.” The teacher responded, “Find another dream.” That comment, then painful, later became the title of her popular audiobook. And she did get to tap dance on Broadway.
Concluding her talk by urging all to find their voice, Zayid added that another of her dreams is coming true: She has gained a recurring part on the megahit soap opera “General Hospital.”