Painting of Susan Nussbaum, wearing a red shirt and blue pants, with a colorful shawl over her left shoulder. She is sitting on a balcony with a park and the lake behind her. Various objects float in the sky nearby, including a red pump shoe, a compact with her smiling face reflected, a pencil, a piece of paper, and a burning steering wheel.
Circle Stories: Susan Nussbaum by Riva Lehrer (1998). "I painted Susan on her balcony, amid a rain of falling objects—a shoe, a compact, a pencil, a burning wheel—each a symbol of who she was before the accident and who she was now. . . . When I brought her the finished panel, she leaned forward and exclaimed, 'I love it! You got my gimpy hands just right.'" (Riva Lehrer, Golem Girl, published October 2020, One World/Random House) Credit: Riva Lehrer

Editor’s note: Chicago playwright, novelist, actor, director, and disability rights activist Susan Nussbaum died April 28 of pneumonia at 68. Playwright Mike Ervin, who collaborated with Nussbaum as cowriter on the comedy revue The Plucky and Spunky Show and whose 1999 play, The History of Bowling, was directed by Nussbaum, remembers his friend and mentor.

Everybody should read Susan Nussbaum’s novel Good Kings Bad Kings right now. Drop everything you’re reading or doing. 

Not only will it be one of the most satisfying reads you’ve had in a long time, but you’ll  understand why so many of us in the disability community are so broken up about her recent death.

When you read Susan’s book, you’ll hear clear and powerful voices telling the story of disabled teens in Chicago who have been dumped in a dead-end, state-operated segregated school for disabled youth. In the end, you’ll be sad that there is no more of this writing to come.

What comes through loud and clear in this book and all Susan’s writing about disability is her intense love for the disability community. But she wasn’t a touchy-feely, huggy person in the least. She expressed that love by undertaking projects that were exhilarating to those who participated in them. That project could be a street protest or a mutual support group for disabled girls or any number of other things.

I owe a debt to Susan for a lot of things, but mostly for getting me involved in the Chicago theater scene more than 30 years ago. My impact on Chicago theater may not have been monumental, but its impact has been monumental on me. I’ve met some of the finest, most admirable people I’ve ever known, and had some of the most fun, while doing my theater work.

Susan (and another guy whose name I don’t remember) wrote a disability-themed sketch comedy called Staring Back that was produced at Second City e.t.c. in 1983. Susan performed in it, too. I was jazzed up watching it. I’d never seen disability matters handled with such skewering humor! It was about time! That was the kind of stuff I wanted to write.

A few years later, Susan asked me if I wanted to write her next show with her. Of course I jumped at the chance. The result was another disability-themed sketch comedy called The Plucky and Spunky Show, which was produced at the good old Remains Theatre in 1990. The cast included Susan and another wheelchair user, a Deaf person, and a blind person.

I had never written for stage or been involved in theater in any way before then. Hell, I’d only seen a handful of plays. But I went on to write a play called The History of Bowling and it was produced at Victory Gardens Theater in 1999 and 2000. Susan was the director both times. After that, a play Susan wrote called No One as Nasty appeared at Victory Gardens and I helped with the production. These plays featured protagonists with disabilities. 

I’m real proud of all that. What I enjoyed most about being a theater collaborator with Susan was that our senses of humor were so in sync. We were both big fans of sarcasm, dark humor, and absurdity. Working on a show with her was exhilarating for me because it was a lot of laughs.

I have one more Susan story to tell. It doesn’t have anything to do with theater but it must be told.

Susan proudly called herself a socialist. She once told me that her dream partner who could satisfy her every need would be a “Marxist-Leninist wheelchair repairman.”

So of course Susan was one of the people who arranged for some disabled people from Chicago to travel to Havana to break bread with some disabled Cubans in 1988. Once again I was fortunate to be included in one of her projects. One day we Chicagoans were sitting outside in Cuba having lunch in perfect tropical weather. Susan began dictating a letter to another woman in our group, who was armed with a pen and writing pad.

Susan dictated, “Dear Esteemed Comandante.” The rest of us at the table ribbed her mightily for writing a letter to Fidel, telling him how enamored we are with his country and inviting him to visit us. What a hopelessly gringo thing to do, we all said. Good luck getting that letter to Fidel, and even if you do, fat chance he has time to meet with us. He’ll probably just laugh about what gringos we are.

A few days later, a stop on our itinerary was a rehabilitation hospital in Havana. As we spoke to the head doctor, our tour guide, Lilia, mentioned the letter. And the doctor said, “I’m a member of the Central Committee. I’ll see Fidel this afternoon. I’ll give him your letter.”

On the day we were to head back to the states, Lilia said, “I’m gonna miss you guys. Can we have a little party in the hotel lounge?”

So we all gathered in the hotel lounge and after a few minutes, in walked Fidel and his entourage, which included the rehab doctor. Fidel stuck around for two hours and talked with us about the Bible, public transportation, and a whole lot more. Earlier in the trip, Susan developed lung congestion and spent a couple days in a Havana hospital receiving respiratory therapy. Susan told Fidel about her hospital stay and mentioned that she received a bill for $250. Fidel apologized and said the only reason she received a bill at all was because she wasn’t a Cuban citizen. Susan assured Fidel that she wasn’t complaining about the bill. How much would two days in the hospital with respiratory therapy cost in the U.S.?

Shortly after Fidel left, the rehab doctor returned to the lounge and picked up the phone. He said to Susan, “I’m calling the hospital, Fidel said to cancel your bill.”

Can you see why so many people miss Susan so damn much?