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December 19, 2004

Interpreting for Huck: Adventures on the Mississippi brought to life for students at Learning Center for Deaf Children

From: Daily News Tribune - Waltham,MA,USA - Dec 19, 2004

By Chris Bergeron / News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004

Attending her first play, Ashley Thompson watched Huckleberry Finn and the cast share the adventure and music of life on the Mississippi through American Sign Language.

Along with classmates from the Learning Center for Deaf Children, she enjoyed a special production of "Big River" that "made me feel like I was part of the play."

"I liked this play because the actors used my language, not spoken English," explained the 17-year-old senior from Somerville in an e-mail. "I remember most how dramatic the actors were, and at the same time, very fascinating."

Thompson was among 24 students from the Framingham school who received complimentary tickets to "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" last month at the Wang Theatre in Boston.

Mark Twain's classic novel of a carefree outcast who helps a slave escape to freedom was staged by the Deaf West Theatre with a cast of hard-of-hearing, deaf and hearing actors.

While Twain broke literary ground by telling his story through the eyes and idiom of a backwoods boy, the production weaves ASL and spoken English into a theatrical tapestry of storytelling, song and dance.

Throughout the performance, hearing and deaf actors speak and sign their lines.

Award-winning singer-songwriter Roger Miller wrote the musical score which mixes Cajun, gospel, folk and blues tunes.

A chorus signs the songs' words, like "Worlds Apart" and "Muddy Water," in unison with the sung lyrics.

Near the end of "Waiting for the Light to Shine," the singers and music stops but the signing chorus continues in total silence, ending with words from poet John Keats, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

The touring, award-winning production earned critical praise. The Wall Street Journal hailed it as "a miraculous theatrical spectacle."

On stage, Huck Finn was played by Tyrone Giordano, a deaf actor who originated the role.

After the play, Thompson said the Deaf West adaptation of Twain's novel provided an uplifting message for all audience members, deaf or otherwise.

A member of the school's basketball and volleyball teams, she wrote, "I think (Twain) might have intended to imply a message that we should all cope with our lives in spite of how difficult it gets."

Just days before the play, English teacher Karen Turley taught Twain's 1884 novel to a class of 11th-and 12th-graders who'd read the book as an assignment.

Located at 848 Central St. Framingham, the Learning Center for Deaf Children has been a school and a home for hundreds of deaf students for more than 30 years.

Classes are conducted in ASL which combines hand movements, facial expressions and body language to communicate meaning and emotions.

Turley passed out a synopsis that explained how Huck Finn was torn between beatings from his drunken father and well-intentioned but stifling attempts by the Widow Douglas "to civilize him."

A chart on the classroom wall introduced literary terms like "conflict," "protagonist," "metaphor" and "irony."

Making her points through ASL, Turley said Twain used rural dialects to satirize racism and bigotry in the years before the Civil War.

Since her students cannot hear or hear only a limited range of sounds, Turley explained Twain's use of regional accents through the familiar joke about the Bostonian who "Paaarked my caaar in Haarvard yaaard."

ASL users express unusual words like "Huckleberry" or regional dialects by "spelling them out" with gestures representing letters of the alphabet.

Turley summarized the plot, reminding students how Huck and an escaped slave named Jim built a wooden raft to "float down the Mississippi River looking for freedom."

She told students that actor Michael McElelroy, who portrays Jim and sings several of the production's biggest musical numbers, is not deaf. In the Deaf West production, Jim's ability to speak ASL is attributed to the fact he has deaf family members.

Turley said Huck and Jim develop a "bond" of shared understanding based on the different kinds of social and racial prejudice they've encountered. She said Twain's novel was staged as a musical in 1985 and later adapted by Deaf West Theatre for mixed audiences.

James Parker, a 17-year-old junior from Williamstown, Vt., said a performance that included ASL speakers "empowered" deaf audiences.

Thompson signed, "It will be cool to see it. I'm looking forward to the play."

After seeing "Big River," Tova Pitler described the play as "amazing to listen to and watch."

The 17-year-old senior from Blackstone was moved by the supportive relationship between Huck and Jim. And she recalled how two actors -- one who spoke and one who used ASL -- portrayed the abusive father, "Pap."

"But I really love the music and how they used sign language for the songs," said Pitler. "It was so amazing. I feel like I want to sing."

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