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American Sign Language: Deaf Talent: "To Whom Does it Matter?"
To Whom Does It Matter
Lindsey N. Pierson
Humans are a meaning-making species. No matter who you are, where you were born, what you can or cannot do; we are all hardwired for connection and belonging. From the beginning of time we have used stories to understand our experiences, share wisdom, and build connection (Brown, 2015). Which, I believe, is why most humans are drawn to movies, theatre, dancing, music and art. Through these mediums we are allowed a glimpse into our souls. Through the power of story, we can make sense of the world, understand others, and better understand ourselves (Brown, 2015). Through the power of art, we transform lives.
“There is not a more striking example of the power of art to transform lives than The National Theatre of the Deaf. In 1967 when NTD began, Sign Language was seen as a stigma. The talents of deaf people were largely untapped” (NTD, 2014). People that are Deaf should be afforded the same opportunity to express themselves, through art, and in society as people that can hear. The National Theatre of the Deaf saw this discrepancy, and acted on it. American Sign Language is such a visual/gestural language that uses your whole body as an instrument to communicate. It is not just “hand flapping.” Moreover, it is absolutely mesmerizing and beautiful to watch. It seems only natural that Theatre and American Sign Language would make a striking marriage. NTD proved just that, by placing ASL onstage. “Deaf people reached new heights as actors and were perceived in a new light, as intelligent, employable people worthy of equal rights” (NTD, 2014).
Fast-forward fifty years to today, and we can still see this battle being fought by the Deaf community. They struggle to be noticed, and given the same opportunities as Hearing performers and artists. Recently, “The #DeafTalent movement spread like wildfire across social media. Using this hashtag, members of the Deaf community publicly spoke out against the cultural appropriation of deafness in movies and TV” (Callis, 2015). You can understand their frustration, and oppression, as Hearing actors are being cast over Deaf actors to play characters that ARE Deaf. It is as absurd as painting a White person’s face Black, instead of casting an African American to play an African American character. In a New York Daily News interview, Catalina Sandino Moreno (a Hearing actress) talks about playing the role of a Deaf mother in her new movie “Medeas.” “I met with a lot of mute and deaf girls,” she tells Viva. “I wanted to get a glimpse of their world.” (Rivera, 2015) Her “deaf/mute” statement alone is a) outdated b) insensitive and c) ignorant. It shows that she really does not have insight about the Deaf culture, and the people she is attempting to portray on film. Which leads me to wonder why the producers did not consider casting a Deaf actress to play the role of the Deaf mother in the film? These types of roles do not show up every day in film. Think about the last 4-5 movies you have watched. Did any of them include a Deaf character, and/or actor/actress? What about politics? How about a Deaf news reporter? What about a Deaf athlete? This community is bursting with talent, and underrepresented in our society. There is so much ignorance about differences and exceptionalities. Different is not bad. It is just different. Switched at Birth actor Nyle DiMarco posted a video in which he says he is “disappointed and insulted” by the choice to cast hearing actors in deaf roles. “We deaf people, including People of Color, transgendered, and disabled people all have true experiences,” DiMarco explains. “We all are talented people! But they keep on casting actors other than us. Our roles have been stolen. They keep stealing our opportunities” (Callis, 2015).
Nyle DiMarco, a male model, who happens to be Deaf, fortunately did get noticed and proved himself as a worthy talent on “Dancing With The Stars”. He performed a Cha-Cha, and wowed audiences all over the world (Hyman, 2016). After watching his performance, anyone could see that he can visibly feel the music and rhythm throughout his entire body. (Which we ALL know moving your body rhythmically is anything but easy!) DiMarco is not the only Deaf performer making waves. “From its humble start in a small theater space in downtown Los Angeles to its three Tony Award nominations, including a nod for musical revival, Deaf West's production of "Spring Awakening" qualifies as this Broadway season's little theater production that could” (Ng, 2016). This production innovatively incorporates eight Deaf actors, eight hearing actors, seven onstage musicians, dancing, acting and American Sign Language all in one (Paulson, 2015). It is truly awe-inspiring, and proves that Deaf actors and actresses are more than able to tell a story that resonates with audiences through music and performance.
Ingrid Michaelson, a pop artist, was so inspired by watching Deaf West Theatre Company’s “Spring Awakening” cast perform at the Tony awards, she wanted to incorporate Deaf actors in her new music video “Hell No.” Michaelson told Radio.Com, “There were deaf and hard of hearing actors on stage using American Sign Language, built into their choreography. It was really interesting and beautiful. I thought, ‘What a cool thing to meld with pop music.’ So I reached out to Michael Arden, who was the director of that performance, and he got six of the actors to come in for a couple of days. We worked on the interpretation, and then we shot for six or seven hours in Brooklyn. It was a really interesting experience for me” (Ives, 2016).
Although the National Theatre of the Deaf was groundbreaking in paving the way for Deaf artists, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. Diversity is the beauty of America, and the more we are around different people, than ourselves, the more flavorful and better we become. The power of art can and will continue to transform lives, but we must open our eyes and afford everyone the right to participate. One universal truth is that we are ALL biologically hardwired for connection, love and belonging; and we are all connected through the power of story. True Story involves everyone, no matter your circumstance or exceptionality. We cannot neglect people on the fringes of society. Different is not bad. Different is not less able. Different is just different.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. New York, New York: Spiegel and Grau.
Callis, L.L. (2015, February 17). Lets See More # Deaf Talent in Hollywood. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lydia-l-callis/lets-see-more-deaftalent-_b_6690324.html
Hyman, V. (2016, March 28). Who is Nyle Demarco, the deaf ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Contestant?. Retrieved from: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/celebrities/index.ssf/2016/03/dwts_who_is_nyle_dimarco_deaf_dancing_with_the_sta.html
Ives, B. (2016, July 25). Ingrid Michaelson on Using Sign Language in Her ‘Hell No’ Video. Retrieved from: http://radio.com/2016/07/25/Ingrid-michaelson-on-using-sign-language-in-her-hell-no-video/
Ng, D. (2016, May 3). Spring Awakening and Deaf Wests unlikely road to three Tony nominations. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-tony-spring-awakening-20160503-snap-story.html
Paulsen, M. (2015, October 2) Lights, Gestures, Action! How to Stage a Broadway Musical with Deaf Actors. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/theater/lights-gestures-action-how-to-stage-a-broadway-musical-with-deaf-actors.html?_r=0
Musical Theater and the Deaf
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