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March 24, 2004

Vista High teens express themselves in sign language

From: North County Times, CA - Mar 24, 2004

By: DAVID FRIED - Staff Writer

VISTA ---- Even if you can't hear what the Vista High School teens are saying while on stage at the Avo Playhouse this week, there is no possibility of misunderstanding what they're saying.

Using pop hits to underscore their ideas, about 100 students from teacher Lisa Jones' five American Sign Language classes lay bare the darkest and brightest perspectives of the world around them, interpreting each thought and lyric in sign.

"Survival: A New Generation" is the fourth production of song, dance and sign Jones' class has put on.

But the students' theme of gaining strength through adversity is significantly different from last year's reflections on the 1960s, which looked at the ethos of their parents and teachers' generation.

This year, Jones asked her students to respond to the question "Who are you right now and what's important to you?" Portions of the intimate, anonymous responses were then recorded and edited into musical sections of portions of 32 of the students' favorite songs.

"Last year we had our turn for you to understand us," Jones said, explaining her concept for this year's production. "Now turn it around on us."

The result is two hours of raw revelations direct from the teens' psyches.

Between numbers, the students step one by one into the pinkish spotlight beaming down at the front of the stage, revealing their classmates' deepest insecurities or declaring their faith in humanity or the divine. While the monologues echo somewhat the theme of each song, they quickly jump from battling depression and low self-esteem to feelings of anger and disillusion at the decay of their home lives.

"It was very strange to see my mom's arms around another man," signs one girl before the song "More to Life" begins.

The show journeys down an emotional path, from feelings of emptiness to expressions of gratitude for the love of friends and family.

"The truth is, you have to fight through it and realize you are important and people love you," says one girl toward the end of the first act.

The idea is for everyone to walk away understanding everyone else, said Jones.

"They learn and see that those private, dark things are not as ugly, because other people have them, too," Jones said.

In every step of the production, the key to that communication has been the gesticulations of American Sign Language.

After writing down their deepest emotions, the students in Jones' class faced their own exercise in interpreting the thoughts of others. Over the past three months, students recorded their classmates anonymous stories, then translated them into sign. Jones said several students nearly cried as they read the students' essays into the microphone.

Each class also had to choreograph and interpret a range of songs, from Christina Aguilera hits to a number by The Flaming Lips.

The fluidity and openness of sign left those interpretations open for negotiation.

"You don't know what the writer of the song was trying to portray, so you have to go with what you think it means," said senior Sabrina Jones.

Audience members are invited to enter worlds they often do not hear as well. They gather a glimpse into how the deaf communicate and experience everyday activities, such as feeling instead of hearing music. Included in the show's program is a deflated balloon audience members are encouraged to blow up and hold in their hands so they can feel the light tingle of the music's beats under their fingertips.

"It teaches everybody," said junior Jessie Wombolt.

Vista High students will perform "Survival: A New Generation" at 7 p.m. today through Saturday at the Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St. in Vista. Tickets are $7. For more information, call (760) 522-3846.

Contact staff writer David Fried at (760) 631-6621 or

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