Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

Book and Media


Review by AJ Jones, Emory University, Email: ajone93@emory.edu

Keywords: play, Russia

Based on Hartblay’s ethnographic research with a group of disabled adults living in a Russian city, I Was Never Alone grounds its exploration of disability in an original play of the same name. Through the play itself notes on the process of writing and staging the script, extensive appendices, and an ethnographer’s essay, the work (I hesitate to refer to I Was Never Alone as only a book) demonstrates how disability can open up performance and ethnography to the creative, collaborative, and ethical potential of vulnerability. 

As Hartblay describes in her essay following the script, I Was Never Alone—both the play and the larger work—generates and advocates for “ritual vulnerability,” or “a design for social interaction that makes us vulnerable to one another in unusual ways” (96). Performance and ethnography are already forms of ritual vulnerability, which Hartblay suggests can be further expanded when we consider disability as a “resource for creative innovation” that strengthens our openness to and interdependence with others (105). Drawing from her experience and expertise as an anthropologist of Russia and from the disability artist-activists who have long demonstrated ways to crip theater, Hartblay suggests her own innovation: that disability theory may serve as opornik for futures of performance ethnography. The term opornik, which in its plural form serves as the secondary title of the work, has various meanings in Russian, reflecting its definition as a strong but flexible “support” or “backbone.” And—although Hartblay deftly argues for the theoretical, methodological,–real-world implications of considering disability as opornik, I Was Never Alone is most remarkable in its ability to actively engage audiences and readers in the very processes of ritual vulnerability that this sense of opornik cultivates. 

Throughout I Was Never Alone, Hartblay reminds us how much collaboration a theatrical undertaking requires. Just as she trusts her collaborators to help bring a collective vision of the play to life, she invites the audiences and readers of I Was Never Alone to participate in the ongoing dialogue of the work as a sort of pseudo-ethnographer. I Was Never Alone opens with its centerpiece: Hartblay’s original script, structured around seven “portraits” based on interviews with seven of her interlocutors. It is easy to be enveloped in each character’s story. Even on the page, the characters come alive with unique senses of humor and distinctive styles of speech. Rather than introduce an ethnographer character, Hartblay instead has the audience take on the role. The characters frequently interact with the audience, offering questions or reacting as if they have just received an interview prompt. As the play progresses, it is impossible not to feel confronted by the implications of your presence. Hartblay thereby effectively communicates her experience as an ethnographer-playwright as she implicitly asks her reader-audience to examine their own role in the production of ideas about disability, Russia, and human connection. 

Hartblay’s experience as ethnographer-playwright comes further into focus in the two “Spotlight on Methods” sections of her essay and the various appendices of I Was Never Alone. As she shares her decision-making process and the subsequent challenges, Hartblay demonstrates her own vulnerability. She highlights the ethical considerations of staging an ethnographic performance in North America based on the lives of real individuals living in Russia, all while fostering inclusive casting processes and accessible rehearsals and performances that leverage the aesthetic potential of disability. As Hartblay makes clear, I Was Never Alone remains very much alive: it will continue to change each time new actors, directors, and audience members reinterpret it. So, too, does the structure of Hartblay’s work allow for constant reinterpretation. There is no “right” way to “read” the work. The script, essay, and appendices (not to mention the audio and visual material that can be found at https://iwasneveralone.org/) hold equally valuable information and ideas that only strengthen one another as oporniki. In turn, I Was Never Alone provides a flexible structure that invites those who interact with it to play.

No wonder the work, which is published as a part of University of Toronto Press’ Teaching Culture series, has such great potential as a pedagogical tool. When interacting with I Was Never Alone, students will practice the very kind of Disability Anthropology for which Hartblay advocates. As she argues, Disability Anthropology not only considers disability as a subject matter but also as a “vantage point from which to theorize broader questions of sociological concern” (86). I Was Never Alone is a prime example of how disability theory can inspire imaginative approaches to academic research, teaching, and social change. Hartblay shares her own suggestions for using the script in class in Appendix 4, but I wonder what students may discover by designing an activity around Appendix 7, for example, which outlines Galloway, Nudd, and Sandahl’s “Ethic of Accommodation.” Along with the script and Hartblay’s discussion of its various stages, students have a rich toolkit to practice their own ethics of accommodation as forms of ritual vulnerability that recognizes disability as opornik.

I have firsthand experience with Hartblay’s claim that doctoral training in sociocultural anthropology often falsely assumes that students know how to do ethnography. I am excited by the idea that classrooms now have access to copies of I Was Never Alone to train a future generation of anthropologists in methods that prioritize collaboration, imagination, and vulnerability. I am equally excited by the potential of the work to introduce students to the creative potential of disability. I can even imagine the work in an introductory course on post-Soviet Russia. Hartblay’s essay and appendices explicitly outline the historical, political, and cultural context of her research, but it is the play and her narration of the process around its creation that make the post-Soviet Russian context and all its North American misconceptions tangible for reader-audiences. Misconceptions around disability, both within and beyond the Russian context, are similarly confronted by the reader-audience and play collaborators in ways that an ethnographic monograph could not produce. Interacting with I Was Never Alone is a dialogue and an embodied experience, creating spaces across time on stages and classrooms where we are invited to produce networks of care alongside Hartblay and her interlocutors.

In I Was Never Alone, Hartblay’s characters and interlocutors are oporniki, as are her collaborators and reader-audiences, but so is her scholarship. She artfully weaves together seemingly disparate disciplines—anthropology of Russia, performance ethnography, and disability theory—to create a backbone of theory and methodology that feel as if they should have been fused together all along. I hope I Was Never Alone will serve as opornik for future projects in Disability Anthropology, which can help shape crip futures built on the flexible strength of caring for and being vulnerable with one another. 

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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