BY NINA MACLAUGHLIN
Aphasia, a disorder that robs its victims of their ability to use and understand language, afflicts over one million Americans. Often the result of a stroke or trauma to the brain, the condition is little known and widely misunderstood. Emmy Award–winning director Vincent Straggas, along with producer Jerome Kaplan, founder of the Aphasia Community Group, seek to shed light on this disorder with their film After Words, which premieres June 1 — the first day of Aphasia Awareness Month — at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.
Kaplan, an actor and speech pathologist, compares aphasia to being in a country where you don’t speak the language. " You can hear people communicating, see facial expressions, see emotions, " he explains, " but you can’t process the words. " For an aphasic, he continues, " speech uttered too quickly sounds like static — you can hear the noise, but you can’t make sense of it. " Aphasia affects output as well: " The individuals can’t instantly access what they want to say, " explains Kaplan. " It’s like being locked inside a one-person cell. " Straggas develops the image: " It’s as though there’s a thick layer of glass between them and the world. " With After Words, Straggas and Kaplan give voice to those people unable to tell their own stories.
The film features members of the Aphasia Community Group, based at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Hector, for example, is a police officer who was shot in the head, suffered a stroke, and is unable to talk properly. There’s also a portrait of a banker who can no longer add two plus two. A woman who suffers from primary progressive aphasia tries to speak of her sadness and frustration, but what comes out, says Straggas, is a disconnected description of her living room. The film also features Tony Award–winning actress Julie Harris, Academy Award–winning actress Patricia Neal, and renowned Boston-based mezzo-soprano Jan Curtis, all of whom have battled aphasia. Vocal explorer and innovator Bobby McFerrin makes an appearance, as does his father Robert McFerrin Sr., who suffered a stroke 12 years ago. In the case of both Curtis and the elder McFerrin, strokes stripped them of certain language skills, but left their ability to sing intact.
So often, laments Straggas, the public misunderstands the disorder. Aphasics " get looked upon as disabled, retarded, deaf, or slow. They’re not, " he says. He hopes that people will leave the film with a greater understanding of the disorder, an appreciation of the struggle that aphasics face, and perhaps a little inspiration. " I hope that people can leave this film, look at their lives at the end of the day, and think to themselves, ‘I really don’t have it that bad.’ " " This is not just another disability-of-the-month movie, " adds Kaplan. " I want to put aphasia [on] the public’s radar. "
After Words, directed by Vincent Straggas and produced by Jerome Kaplan, screens June 1 at 4 p.m., at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, 279 Tremont Street, in Boston. Tickets are $25, and $100 for premium seats. Proceeds benefit the Stroke and Neurology Program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Call (617) 573-2920.
Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
Back to the News and Features table of contents.