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August 22, 2003

Deafness as Metaphor, Not Gimmick

From: New York Times - Aug 22, 2003


Frank Datolla, a deaf friend of mine, attended a kindergarten graduation in which the students, all of them able to hear, had been taught a little American Sign Language so that they could sign a song about shapes. Imagine his shock then when these adorable petunias got to the verse about triangles and formed, with graceful rhythm and practiced fingers, not the sign for triangle but the sign for vagina.

The anecdote came up the other day when Mr. Datolla and I were talking about "Big River," which we had just seen performed at the American Airlines Theater. The play has been reviewed by critics writing for audiences who can hear, but what is the theatrical experience for the deaf?

Like the school play, this production, a revival of the 1985 musical based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," weds spoken English and sign language onstage. Unlike the school play in virtually every other respect, this production uses signing in ways that work both thematically and aesthetically.

Developed by the California-based Deaf West Theater, "Big River" has not only impeccable lineage but also cultural integrity preserved at every turn, from the remarkably fine translation — at once faithful and inventive — created by four of what the program terms "A.S.L. Masters" to the deeply intimate, never patronizing balance sustained among the deaf and hearing actors onstage.

But both the embarrassing instance of the school play and the artistic achievement of "Big River" beg the question of why. To what end are the culture and language of the deaf presented as art before the larger hearing public? What appetites are being met and whose?

It is probably safe to say that it was not for Mr. Datolla's benefit. Fair enough. Deafness is a low-incidence disability. About 10 percent of the general population has some kind of hearing impairment; the percentage who identify themselves as culturally deaf (the group likely to use sign language) is only about 1 percent of this, something less than 290,000 people nationwide. Certainly the prospect of ticket revenues from this tiny group is not the stuff to get a Broadway producer's heart racing. So the fact that deaf audiences can reap the pleasures of this production is almost a happy accident, resulting from the willingness of enough hearing people to flock to the show. And why is this?

That question brings us back to Mr. Datolla's story, in which the kindergartners earnestly peered out at the audience through the vaguely triangular windows their little hands formed before their faces. The hearing person's fascination with sign language all too often treads a wavy line between respect and condescension, with misappropriation of the language one unfortunate result. Another, subtler pitfall is the technically correct use of sign language in a context that makes of it, in Mr. Datolla's phrase, "a dog-and-pony show."

Here he gets a vapid, rapt look on his face. "Sign language is so beautiful," he signs, in a gushing mockery of the attitude that exoticizes sign and correspondingly reduces deaf people to the status of pets, mascots. "It's just so wonderful that deaf people can communicate!"

One of the laudable things about "Big River" is that it never lets the hearing audience stumble into this trap; it excavates and celebrates the artistic possibilities of sign language without glorifying it, without ever making it seem too-too precious or maudlin. One never has the feeling that sign language was layered on gratuitously as a gimmick; it really works within the story, amplifying the theme of cross-cultural connection.

As Tyrone Giordano, the deaf actor who plays Huck, pointed out in a post-show discussion the day we attended, deafness also functions in this play as a metaphor of isolation. But as evidenced by the other deaf actors and the characters they portray, deafness is never reduced to a one-note song. Troy Kotsur, in multiple roles, displays the broadest palette of sign language, using it in grand deaf tradition to repulse, amuse, hoodwink, delight, woo, disturb and move us.

For Mr. Datolla — who teaches biology and chemistry at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, and who has worked as a professional actor, touring for three years with the National Theater of the Deaf — "Big River" is a welcome breakthrough. At the performance we saw, he appreciated many things, from the ushers' knowledge of some sign language to the opportunity to follow all the dialogue without having to turn his gaze from the actors to an interpreter at the edge of the stage.

He was pleasantly surprised by the signing skills of the hearing actors; even the shakiest was intelligible, and some signed with real fluidity. He delighted in the richness and versatility of the translation, asking whether I'd noticed the use of an old-fashioned sign for "home," which fitted the dialect and register of the characters better than the contemporary sign (I hadn't), and whether I'd found the freshly coined sign for "nonesuch" amusing, as he had (yes, indeed).

Perhaps more than anything else, Mr. Datolla said, he valued being able to attend the theater with a hearing friend and know he was having an equal experience. He spoke of going with his dearest hearing friend to see two different sign-interpreted productions of "Follies," one an apparently excellent production with poor interpreters, the other an apparently poor production with excellent interpreters, and the feeling of loneliness at the end of each show when they turned to each other with their mismatched reactions.

For Mr. Datolla, attending interpreted performances is always, to some extent, an experience of disconnect. Receiving plays through an interpreter requires a high degree of concentration and practice; for this reason, he says, many deaf people don't enjoy going to the theater, even when it's facilitated by the most talented theatrical interpreters. At "Big River," there was no rerouting of the message.

Done this well, with intelligence, wit and thematic and cultural integrity, sign language has the power to do what any art aspires to: affect people's attitudes.

At the post-show discussion, one hearing audience member confessed he hadn't realized what he was getting into when he bought his ticket: "I didn't think there were going to be deaf people signing onstage. When I realized what was happening, I have to tell you, I was pretty uncomfortable.

"For the first three or four minutes."

Leah Hager Cohen, who is able to hear and is fluent in American Sign Language, is the author of "Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World'' and "The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of an American Community Theater.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company