Cheryl Marie Wade — “The Queen Mother of Gnarly” — an acclaimed playwright, poet, performer, filmmaker and disability rights activist, died at her Berkeley, Calif., home on August 21, 2013, due to complications of rheumatoid arthritis. She was 65.
Wade was born in Vallejo, Calif., on March 4, 1948. At age 10 she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Despite numerous surgeries during high school, she was educated in the public school system and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.
A pioneer in the disability arts and culture movement, Wade’s in-your-face style of writing and performing challenged disability-related stereotypes and misconceptions. Leroy Moore, a Berkeley resident and friend, says her passing is a huge loss for the disability community. “She’s one of the people that gave us a sense of pride and culture through her art,” he says. Moore remembers her as a person who brought people with disabilities together, and he hopes her contributions won’t be forgotten. “I hope we as a community will uplift her work and keep people reminded of it,” he says.
In 1985, Wade founded Wry Crips, a theater group that presented poetry, skits, and dramatic readings exclusively written and performed by women with disabilities. Judith Smith, the artistic director for AXIS Dance Company, was in Wry Crips with Wade during its early years. Smith says Wade was a powerhouse in the group and influenced many young women with disabilities. “She was an incredible mentor for the young women who came through Wry Crips,” she says.
Smith considers Wade to be a groundbreaking figure in the disability culture and arts movement because her narrative style was unique. “It was very bold and unapologetic,” Smith says. “She said how she felt and got her point across with a lot of humor — and sometimes some biting sarcasm.”
Wade leaves behind a significant legacy. “My hope would be that her work stays prominent in the body of disability art and culture,” says Smith. “I hope everybody in the disability community and disability arts will keep her name alive, because it’s important work — historically and culturally important.”
In 1989, Wade left Wry Crys to purse a solo career. She created and performed in two solo shows, A Woman with Juice, and Sassy Girl: Memoirs of a Poster Child Gone Awry. Sassy Girl was showcased at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Festival. She was also a founding member of AXIS Dance Company.
She was one of the first performers with disabilities to make effective use of video, producing many award-winning videos, including Here, Body Talk, and Disability Culture Rap — which won best of festival at the Superfest International Film Festival. Her thoughtful and witty poetry and writings were published in Ms. Magazine, New Mobility, Mouth Magazine and The Disability Rag.
Wade is survived by her lifetime partner, Colman Ahearn; brother Robert Wade; and cousins Karin Bennett and Kevin Bennett.