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Actor brings inspiring story to Binghamton University Forum
February 27, 2012Tweet
Actor and disability advocate David Harrell held out his arm and recalled a time when a talent agent told him that he would only be cast in roles written for someone with one hand.
“There are people who look at this and see limitation,” said Harrell, who was born without a right hand. “I believe in the flip side of limitation. I believe we can stop and find the positive in those limitations. … I relish the opportunity to show that this disability is not some heroic obstacle to overcome. It’s a unique aspect in one’s life.”
Harrell is making the most of the “flip side of limitation.” He has appeared on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” will soon take part in an off-Broadway production of “The Merchant of Venice” and has produced a one-man show called “A Little Potato and Hard to Peel.”
The Brunswick, Ga., native performed parts of his one-man show and discussed his journey at the Binghamton University Forum at the Binghamton Club on Feb. 23. The Forum appearance was in collaboration with the Goodwill Theatre’s Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, where Harrell performed the next night.
“How did this one-armed kid from south Georgia end up as an actor and speaker living in New York City?” he asked the Forum members.
Harrell’s first re-enactment was Sept. 2, 1974, as his mother was in labor on Labor Day. Harrell impersonated his father anxiously waiting for the birth of his son at the hospital, baseball glove in hand. When Harrell was born, his parents promised him he would never be different.
“My son is going to play baseball,” Harrell said in his father’s voice. “He’s just going to have to play left-handed.”
Harrell’s second scene took place at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Greenville, S.C., where he was fit with a heavy mitt to help him develop balance. (“I was a happy-go-lucky, lopsided toddler boy adapting to the world,” he said.) The frequent fittings for new prostheses were like “disabled Christmas,” Harrell said, who offered doctors his youthful version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band.
Pop culture would play an instrumental role in Harrell’s life.
“Having one hand in the 1980s did have its advantages,” he said. “Like when my mother took me to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ Luke Skywalker gets his hand chopped off! I could be Luke Skywalker! I abandoned my (prosthesis) to play Luke Skywalker and I was a hero.”
Harrell would go on to play baseball, transferring his glove to his right arm and then throwing the ball. He even made middle-school all-star teams. But he also took roles in church musicals that were led by his mother. Harrell was faced with a choice: sports or theater. He chose theater and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi.
As he developed his acting career, Harrell remembered a story his grandfather had told about a Little League baseball team whose players were small but played hard and with heart. The team was called “The Little Potatoes and Hard to Peel.”
“I like to think of that story as a metaphor for life,” he said. “We play this game of life as hard as we can. No matter what happens, we stay tough and we don’t let circumstances peel away who we are.”
When he is not on stage or standing before the camera, Harrell tells his story to middle-school and high-school students in New York, Pennsylvania and across the Southeast. He also serves as the disability and programming associate for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York City.
“We all face challenges in our lives,” he said. “We can stop and decide not to be defined by limitations. We can live our lives with determination and courage, and encourage our friends, family and colleagues to find their full potential – and not let challenges peel away the core of our humanity. We can all be little potatoes and hard to peel.”