Sunday, September 20, 2015

Azeotrope's new play "Sound" exemplifies Hearing-Privileged vs. Deaf Culture...Gracefully!

Lindsay W. Evans and Cheyenna Clearbrook in Sound (Jason Tang)
Sound
Azeotrope 
(at ACTLab – ACT Theatre)
Through October 4, 2015

There are so many graceful moments in the new play, Sound, presented by Azeotrope! That is not the intention of this intensely deep and interesting exploration of the deaf community, but it’s part of my opinion on the intentions of directors Desdemona Chiang and Howie Seago!

This play “speaks” two languages: American Sign Language and spoken English. Azeotrope was determined to learn how to accommodate an audience filled with both hearing and deaf members and they have done so with… grace! And intelligence! And success!

The play, before I get too far off on the “grace notes,” is a new one by Don Nguyen, on the really controversial use of the cochlear implant. If you’re a hearing person and know that it’s a pretty revolutionary device that helps deaf people hear, you might be surprised to know that it’s controversial in the deaf community. What could be wrong with that???

Well, the deaf community, long ago, developed a culture around celebrating deafness, and rejecting it as a “defect,” that then puts such technological breakthroughs into a much more complex arena. In fact, the deaf community pretty uniformly hates Alexander Graham Bell. Huh, you say? The inventor of the telephone?

The play makes it clear that Bell focused a huge amount of attention toward developing such a technology because he had a deaf wife. He had taught her to lip read and speak, but she also had a condition that caused her sight to degenerate and he wanted provide her a mechanism to hear before she became blind.

Bell did a lot of his research around Martha’s Vineyard. You can read about Martha’s Vineyard’s very unique history of being an island with many more deaf folks than other places at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha%27s_Vineyard_Sign_Language. The play uses that history to show that Bell actually treated the deaf the way people of any unaware privilege treat those not so situated. He imposed his own ideas of the tragedy of deafness onto people who felt that they got along in society terrifically through sign language and were quite normal and productive!

Nguyen’s play is mostly about a long-divorced couple struggling with a teenager. Allison (Cheyenna Clearbrook) wants a cochlear implant; her hearing mother (Lindsay W. Evans) wants to do everything she can to provide one; her deaf father (Ryan Schlecht) feels like his daughter is just fine and doesn’t need it. In fact, he feels threatened that Allison will lose her signing and maybe even her connection to him and the rest of the deaf community.

There are contextual historical scenes with Bell (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) and his wife (Elizabeth Ayers Gibson), and they are useful, but over used (an easy area to contract script-wise). The best story and the most engaging of the issue is the modern family drama.

So, back to grace… The directors (one hearing, one deaf) found solutions for the deaf to get the spoken dialogue (projected words on gracefully-sized screens) and for the hearing to get the signed dialogue (gracefully placed actor/translators). There were screen projections of online chat between friends that everyone had to read together (though it would have been more dramatic seeing Allison interact with an onstage friend).

The set by Adam Zopfi-Hulse was a compact, double-duty set of platform heights that changed easily from one locale to another. Jessica Trundy’s lights were precise. Costuming by Christine Tschirgi was versatile and flattering for the modern folk and period-apt for the historic ones.

Sound effects were an interesting challenge (should they take them out, since the deaf audience couldn’t hear them? No, let’s make them work for everyone). Mariah Brougher and the team came up with seamless solutions. I don’t even know what they were!

Casting a play like this, with hearing actors, deaf actors, sign language fluidity needed, might be a challenge in some cities. Fortunately for Azeotrope, they found an abundance of deaf actors and hearing signers completely capable of supporting the story. Schlecht is a burly guy, suitable for the fisherman father and completely believable in his role. Evans showed a compassionate but tough side as a caring mother torn, as many parents of kids-of-different-cultures (for instance, adopted parents of children of color) would be, between figuring out if she was inappropriately imposing her own values on her daughter or supporting Allison’s independent decision.

The rest of the cast provides solid support as well. Andrew Wilkes, Jessica Kiely and Stephanie Kim-Bryan handle interpreter and small role switching, easily. Wilkes is engaging as a Martha’s Vineyard associate to Bell and translator to the deaf community of Bell’s comments.

Special mention must be made of young Miss Clearbrook. She is beautiful, natural, riveting, and a born actress. If she is found by Hollywood, she will become a tv or movie star, no doubt whatsoever. If that is what she wants. Here’s hoping she will continue to thrive and break barriers for all deaf actors.

For more information, go to www.azotheatre.org/az/ or www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.