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November 13, 2002

Student to play role without words

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer, OH
Nov. 13, 2002

Rosa MarSantana
Plain Dealer Reporter

Beachwood - "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a drama about courage in the face of great adversity, told through the eyes of a young, idealistic girl.

That could be the story of Beachwood High School junior Michelle Czocher, who is deaf and will play a role in her school's dramatization of the novel. She will play a teenager who accuses an innocent black man of raping her.

The script does not call for a deaf actor, but Michelle, 16, won the part. Because she will say her lines with sign language, the play's director has added an extra character - a court interpreter - to interpret Michelle's signing.

But the emotions will be all Michelle's as she reacts to the vigorous cross-examination by Atticus Finch in one of the more powerful scenes in the play, which is based on the novel by Harper Lee.

Michelle sympathizes with people who have suffered from racism, injustice and separation.

"I experienced some of that a long time ago because I was separated from the hearing mainstream," she said. "I want to break boundaries. I want to learn to become more involved in the hearing world."

Michelle is in the Beachwood program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Beachwood schools are the region's leader in teaching the deaf and draw students from more than 15 suburban school districts.

Beachwood has 35 students whose hearing is impaired.

This is the first time a deaf student will have a prominent role in a Beachwood high school play. Michelle beat 27 other students for the part of Mayella Ewell.

Michelle has taken several drama classes and thinks about one day joining the National Theater of the Deaf. Before trying out, she practiced her facial expressions in front of a mirror to convey Mayella's emotional complexity.

Sheila Heyman, director of theater at the high school, said Michelle stood out at tryouts.

"Sometimes I'll see something that'll make the hairs on my arms stand," Heyman said. "There was an intensity about it that I was really attracted to."

High school junior Emily Elman, 17, won the role of court interpreter. She said she is impressed by Michelle's acting.

"She's amazing," Emily said of Michelle. "There's so much more emotion she brings across than other people who are hearing. It will make people think in ways they haven't thought of before."

At lunch, Emily practices with a sign-language interpreter at the high school. For Emily, who had never studied sign language, learning it has opened a new world.

"Personally, I think it's a great thing. It's carrying further the political statement of the play." Emily said.

The play, set in Alabama in the 1930s, explores the oppressive race relations of that time and examines the racism that ultimately convicts an innocent man. The play paints Mayella Ewell as a lonely, abused teenager who is beaten by her alcoholic father.

During a recent rehearsal, Michelle's legs trembled and she cried on cue when her character was cross-examined in the play's courtroom scene.

"I want to show that Mayella's not an educated woman," Michelle said. "She has to follow what her dad wants. She's limited because her father limits her. That's why she's stuck. She doesn't know how to protect herself."

Michelle said she feels sure she can convey the girl's emotion. "I believe deaf people can act just as good as people who are hearing, and they could fit in the mainstream," she said.

Heyman, the school theater director, has worked with deaf actors before. While a professional actress, Heyman worked in 1980 for the Fairmount Theater of the Deaf, where she voiced for deaf actors and signed for actors on stage.

That training led her to add the role of a court interpreter.

"A lot of people think they can't speak our language, so that's a reflection of their intelligence and that's not true," Heyman said. "People should learn to accept each other, and that's why I like this play. We should know how to live in one world and not in two worlds."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4987

© 2002 The Plain Dealer.