A Sign of the Times: Musicals for the Deaf

by on June 2, 2015

   Music and singing seem to be a realm that American Sign Language (ASL) would have a hard time penetrating. For Deaf West, a partly deaf, partly hearing guild of actors, the musicals are a mixture of signing and singing with the aforementioned group of actors. The recent production of Spring Awakening demonstrated the talents of both hearing and non-hearing actors. Hearing actors covered their mouths and sang the scores of the musical, while deaf actors signed the songs. In the traditional sense of the show, this takes away a component of what is typically seen in musicals and replacing it with an amalgamation of styles to question: who really is the person singing?

   In the 1880’s, sign language was outlawed as it came to be known as “impure speech.” It was thought, instead that those who were deaf or hard of hearing would be able to more effectively communicate with lip-reading or “oraling.” It is this type of thinking that perpetuated deafness as an outright disadvantage and carried the connotation of a lack of “ableness,” as with blindness, lameness, etc.

   The play is a coming-of-age, so to speak. The communication factor is a major theme, as pubescent teens and burdensome adults clash in finding a way to make their points to each other. Artistic director, DJ Kurs, who is also deaf, wants to bring the issue of deafness as a disability to the forefront: “Ninety percent of us,” he said, “are born to hearing parents, and we’re dealing with [a cultural] divide from the beginning.” He hopes that the clear and present differences of the presentation of the play will enlighten the audience.

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