“Wheels” musical shines light on life with a disability.
“Wheels” is headed to New York!
Jess Westman, who wrote the musical, is taking his show on the road after the August graduation from Hardin-Simmons University. “Wheels” tells the story of a brother and sister, “Elijah” and “Nancy,” who both have Duchenne, a severe form of muscular dystrophy. In real life, Jess has Becker, a milder form of the disease.
The musical debuted in June at Hardin-Simmons, with an all- student cast. Jess not only wrote the play, he also directed it and played the role of “Elijah.” Now he’s moving to the New York area with a dream of getting “Wheels” produced on an off-Broadway stage.
“I have been in contact with various people in the New York theater business,” Jess said, “and I plan on getting the show to a theater to begin working on it as soon as I can.”
He also will continue doing freelance graphic design and photography to support himself while working toward his dream. Jess’ co-star for the Hardin-Simmons production was Kathryn Darwin, who played “Nancy,” the sister of “Elijah.” Perhaps her assessment of the original work says it best.
“There’s no victimhood, there’s just empowerment” was Kathryn’s take on “Wheels.”
If everyone who sees “Wheels” leaves the theater with that same impression, then Jess will know he hit his mark.
Jess and an older brother, Josh, both were diagnosed at an early age with Becker. Jess wrote “Wheels,” with Josh’s blessing, as a way of encouraging others with disabilities, especially young people. All twenty actors in “Wheels” perform in wheelchairs, where Jess expects he will be someday. He wanted to write a story for people who are in the same place he is, or a worse place.
“I want to be a voice,” he said.
Jess started developing that voice, in the form of “Wheels,” about two years ago as a musical theater major at Hardin- Simmons. His co-star, Kathryn, also an HSU musical theater major, was blown away by what her friend wrote. Even though Kathryn doesn’t have a disability, she got the message that Jess wanted portrayed.
“I think he’s done something really incredible,” Kathryn said.
The hospital scene featuring L-R Griffin Jones, Julia Hollingsworth, Jess Westman, Kathryn Darwin, Bethany Soder, Jake Hamilton, Price Payne, Caden Creech, Kathlyn Messer, and Tyrell White.
Jess acknowledges that at two and a half hours, “Wheels” is too long and he already is at work trimming it. His goal is to get the musical published so that it can be staged by others, especially in middle schools and high schools. That’s the age where bullying is most likely to occur, as Jess found out when he was in school. He hopes the message of “Wheels” will have a positive effect on kids who may look at people with disabilities as somehow inferior.
Jess has the full support of his primary theater professor at Hardin-Simmons, Dr. Victoria Spangler, who has watched Jess mature over the past three and a half years as a student in her classes. Jess’ first attempt at playwriting came in high school when he wrote a musical called “Spencer.” As a Hardin-Simmons student, he talked to Spangler about writing another play, which eventually became “Wheels.” The first title Jess chose, “Breaking the Fall,” ended up in the trash.
“It sounded like a dumb romance novel,” Jess said.
When Jess first talked to Spangler about writing a musical, she told him he needed to take a playwriting class. Just like any other art form, writing a play takes discipline and knowledge of certain structures.
“You’ve got to know the rules,” Spangler told Jess.
In the spring of 2020, former McMurry University theater professor Charlie Hukill was hired to teach a playwriting class for one semester at Hardin-Simmons. Jess signed up and wrote a play for that class, although not “Wheels.”
Spangler was impressed with Jess’ determination and his focus on learning the craft of writing a play. He was so insistent on staging the best possible version of “Wheels” that he was editing it until the last minute.
“He cut a song the night before the show opened,” Spangler said.
Julia Hollingsworth and Griffin Jones perform a song in “Wheels.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Against her advice, and everyone else’s, Jess not only wrote the play, he also directed it and played the role of “Elijah.” He did agree to having a co-director, Dylan Scott. The entire production at Hardin-Simmons was student-driven–cast selection, design, directing–everything. Students from Abilene Christian and McMurry universities also took parts in the play.
“I’m so glad we were able to do it,” Spangler said. “I’m exceedingly proud of them.”
Spangler will continue to support Jess in the future by giving him tips on getting published and assisting him with contacts. And Jess has numerous contacts of his own. Spangler already talked to him about a “script doctor” and an off-Broadway company in New York City called Theater Breaking Through Barriers. Its stated mission is “advancing artists and developing audiences of people with disabilities and altering the misperceptions surrounding disability.”
Jess is encouraged by the success and visibility of actress Ali Stroker, who made history in 2015 as the first actor in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway in Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening.” In 2019, Stroker won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of “Ado Annie” in “Oklahoma!”
Spangler believes Jess has what it takes to keep perfecting “Wheels” to the point that it could be picked up by a publisher. The fact that it has already been staged is a major step in the publishing process. And, Jess has an excellent video of the HSU production, shot by his father, Rob Westman, who is director of television for Abilene ISD.
Other plusses that Jess possesses, Spangler noted, are an openness to suggestions, determination, and talent. To add to the mix, Jess is looking beyond his own success and personal satisfaction.
“He has a larger purpose,” Spangler said. “It’s obviously something that’s been put on his heart.”
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Jess started working on “Wheels” about two years ago, but the seeds were planted much earlier. As a child, he discovered that the arts provided an outlet for “Just being anything other than myself.” As a student he was bullied and found that the arts provided a means of escape. By age 19, he had developed a limp, which he at first tried to hide. But with maturity, Jess found his larger purpose and now he is focused on being a voice for others who face the difficulties he faced growing up “different.”
“Wheels”tells the story of Elijah and Nancy, the brother/sister duo who struggle with Duchenne, a more severe form of muscular dystrophy than Becker, which Jess has.
His goal with “Wheels” was to portray the characters as human beings who face adversities, but also who have capabilities. In other words, he wanted the characters to be just like all other human beings. He wants “able” people to understand that that “disabled” people are much more than their disability.
The positive feedback he received from the HSU production tells him he hit his goal. He even got a thumbs- up from big brother, Josh, who played drums in the HSU production, along with Marc Sanders on piano and Gerard Lara on bass.
Josh is the assistant choral director at Cooper High School and a musician. He knew the music Jess wrote for “Wheels” was solid, but he didn’t know how powerful the story would be until he experienced it.
“It’s going to make an impact,” Josh told Jess.
One of the students in the Hardin-Simmons production, Caden Creech, is disabled and can not get in and out of his chair without assistance. Caden brought authenticity to the production and provided valuable insight. He also paid Jess a great compliment by letting him know the play had opened his eyes, too.
“You changed my life, Westman,” Caden told his friend.
The storyline in “Wheels” takes an odd twist midway through but represents the roller coaster path that life often takes. At the end of Act I, the characters are start- ing a foundation called “Wheels” that shines a public light on disabilities. And then at the beginning of Act II–right off the bat–Elijah dies.
“You don’t kill off your main character” is a tenet of storytelling, Jess said he was told. But in this case, it worked. Jess wanted the story to represent the real world as lived by many people with disabilities. Death often comes too soon, but that doesn’t mean the life was without purpose.
Jess pointed to Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who died of a rare form of muscular dystrophy when he was 13.
Despite his short life, Mattie was the author of six books of poetry and one book about peacemaking. He was a guest on talk shows and at rallies. Former President Jimmy Carter gave the eulogy at Mattie’s funeral. The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation carries on his message of “Peace is Possible.” Elijah’s death in “Wheels” depicts a similar outcome.
“So much more impact is made after he breathes his last breath,” Jess said of Elijah.
Going forward, Jess wants “Wheels” to make an impact, too. He isn’t looking for fame but wants to use his own life and gifts to benefit others. A photo from the Hardin-Simmons production shows Jess sitting in a wheelchair with his back to the camera. “Love Is A Cycle” and the outline of a wheelchair are printed on the back of his T-shirt. Jess intentionally chose the words “wheels” and “cycle” to convey a message. Love manifests during good times and bad as life rolls along.
“It’s all encompassing,” Jess said.
If all goes as planned, Jess will see “Wheels” produced on many stages in the future. His hope is that the message of “Wheels” will continue to have an impact for years to come. He’s betting it will.
“‘Wheels’ is never a story that ends,” Jess said. “It’s going to continue in someone’s life.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photography By Gejay Pableo