May 26, 2024

Throughout time communication has been a challenge. For two people who come from different language universes, it is even more so.

Such is the world of the two lead characters in the Tony Award-winning play “Children of a Lesser God,” later made into a film that featured a Best Actress Oscar win in 1987 for Marlee Matlin in her movie debut.

And which will soon be presented by Sweet Apple Productions at Stage West Theatre, Feb. 22-25.

The show stars Ryan Brown as James Leeds, a teacher at a school for Deaf students (the Deaf community prefers the word to be capitalized for respect), and Rebekah Covington as Sarah Norman, a former student angry at the world. As James works to break down the barrier between Sarah and hearing people like himself, the two fall in love. Still, the realization that their worlds have distinct differences must be dealt with and a unity must be found.

The show was the first to integrate Deaf and hearing characters — with Deaf roles performed strictly by Deaf actors. The Sweet Apple presentation features three hearing actors, two Hard of Hearing (also preferred capitalization) and two Deaf.

Choosing the play

“I’ve never seen a staged production of this play, but I read it 30 years ago as a drama student in college and I remember thinking that I would love to play the role of James some day,” said Brown, who is also a co-founder and co-producer of Sweet Apple Productions with Jennifer Bangs, who co-directed this show.

“When Jennifer and I were deep into rehearsal on our last show, ‘Oleanna,’ and talking about what we wanted to do next, she asked if there was another play I’d always wanted to do, and I brought up ‘Children of a Lesser God.’ A couple of days later we met Jorilyn Tasker.

“She told us that she was a licensed (American Sign Language) interpreter. We sort of took it as a sign – pardon the pun.”

Tasker is also the show’s co-director.

While not Deaf, Brown was born Hard of Hearing and has been wearing hearing aids for more than 20 years.

“I actually regret that it has taken me so long to become involved with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community,” he said.

Bangs said that there was also the task of finding the right Deaf actress to play Sarah. Then, she received her own signal that the production was meant to be.

“I scoffed and said ain’t no way we’re going to find a talented non-union Deaf actress to play our lead. That night we received a submission for ‘Oleanna’ from a Deaf actress (Covington),” Bangs said. “Then, a month later we hired Jorilyn, and when we found out she was also a certified ASL interpreter, it was clear — we have to do this show.”

Covington comes onboard

Deaf since birth, growing up Covington had very little acting experience. However, she has always been very comfortable in front of an audience, though this is her time to act in a stage production.

She grew up dancing for the Bruce Lee Dance Factory. At 2, she engaged in ballet, tap, lyrical, hip-hop, clogging, and jazz as the only the Deaf dancer on her team.

“I danced alongside them to the beat. I continued dancing until I was 16. Then, I had to stop dance classes, and find a part-time high school job to support my family,” she said.

But her love for performing remained. She often attended comedy shows where someone would ask for a volunteer to do a skit.

“I was that kid who would get up there,” she said. “I also love public speaking. I love speaking about my Deaf Culture, the Deaf Community, and what we can do for our future together.”

Plus, she is talented with interpreting musical lyrics through ASL.

And, she owns an art business called Peacock Hand Studio.

“I love expressing myself through music, art, dancing, and of course, acting,” she said.

She graduated in the top 8% of her class from high school. She holds a master’s degree in teaching and is a college professor.

“I can do anything except hear,” Covington said. “I have a wonderful husband and a beautiful daughter.”

Covington said common misconception is that being Deaf is genetic. She noted that 90% of Deaf children come from parents who are able to hear.

“My family is hearing. The moment that my family found out that I am Deaf, they decided to learn American Sign Language,” she said. “I am fluent in English as well. However, English is based on spoken sounds that I cannot hear. American Sign Language is a visual language that I can see.

“Many hearing parents try to fix or cure their child’s hearing status. In my case, my parents embraced me.”

One day, someone asked her to help produce a short film, “Do You Believe?” It’s about Jesus Christ, but completely told in ASL and almost all of the cast and crew were Deaf, she explained. The co-director asked her to do small scenes as an extra.

“At that moment, people commented that I was a natural-born actor,” she said. “From there, I woke up, and realized I am made to act.”

Directing challenges

This is Bangs’ first time to direct a show that involves Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors.

“I cannot tell you how exciting it is to have my world open up to a completely new group of people,” she said. “There’s a Deaf coffee chat every month in Arlington made up of hearing and non-hearing people and it’s super fun to go to even though I barely know any sign language. But the main point is, I’m not afraid to try to talk to a Deaf person anymore.”

Even so, mixing the two worlds to tell a story onstage had its challenges.

“Every direction I make, from the simplest ‘Hey, cross over here,’ is first questioned. ‘Wait, Jenn, whom are you talking to and where is ‘here?’’ And then THAT has to be interpreted,” she said. “Also, in theater actors listen for their cues when to come onstage as they’re waiting in the wings. How does a Deaf actor know when to come onstage if they can’t hear the cue and can’t see the stage?”

There’s also the challenge of working with a cast that not only has a different language, but also a different culture, she said.

“It’s not just ‘Oh, I can hear and you can’t, or you can sign and I can’t.’ It’s also knowing that the Deaf language is visual. So, bright or busy patterned shirts are problematic for a Deaf audience,” Bangs said. “So you have to rethink costumes. It’s these kinds of things I didn’t even think about before we started this process.”

Bangs did not know much sign language before this show, but he said she has always appreciated its beauty ever since first experiencing it years ago.

“I was in a show fresh out of college that was about Thomas Edison, who was Hard of Hearing, and we had interpreters at some of our shows. I’d stand offstage and watch them sign and I thought, ‘My God, what a beautiful language,’” she recalled. “So I picked up a book and learned a lot of Christian worship music signs on my own. I’m also a decent speller, so I spell a lot of words. But outside of that, I know hardly any sign language.”

Student interpreters from Tarrant County College were recruited to help with the show.

For Tasker, directing was doubly challenging. First, she’d never directed a full-length show before, let alone one this complex.

“This one has so many moving parts, challenging barriers, culture clashes and unique transitions,” she said. “The biggest challenge was simply keeping equal access for all of our key players. We need to ensure that both cultures are respected and feel equal.”

Acting challenges

Covington said Deaf actors took time to educate hearing actors on how to give cues visually through simple hand gestures, movements, light cues and other methods. Plus, she said it is imperative that all actors have to remember to stand in the line of sight for Deaf actors.

Also, Deaf and hearing actors are encouraged to position their body toward the audience in a way that everyone, including Deaf audience members, can see clearly.

“It takes time to figure out how to make that look theatrical and natural,” she said.

Covington appreciates the co-directors taking time to ask for the Deaf actors’ perspective and opinions to ensure they were represented correctly, rather than through the vision of hearing people.

Brown said the extended rehearsal process has allowed him to immerse himself in the Deaf culture. He and Covington have done a lot of rehearsing outside of those regularly scheduled.

“I think it is in those sessions that I learned the most, as those sessions are very much the way our characters live as a hearing and Deaf couple,” he said. “When we first began those rehearsals, I could hardly sign a word. I was literally having to text her to communicate. But as time went on, and my signing got better the texting stopped.

“We now rehearse for hours together, alone, without interpreters, signing and lipreading…and basically figuring it out…just as our characters do. It really is magical.”

His character, James, does simultaneous communication (sim com) for a good part of the show, which is signing and speaking together.

“It’s really speaking two separate languages at the same time,” Brown said. “Jorilyn was also my signing teacher, and I have no words for how amazing she is. This show would not be happening without her.”

Another challenge was learning to recognize and interpret Covington’s signs, which he said “uses a whole other set of mental muscles. I guess there’s a reason we’ve been with this show for 10 months now.”

Interpreting the message

Covington said the show’s message of learning to communicate remains just as strong today as it did in 1979.

“The issue is not that Deaf people cannot hear. In reality, the real issue is that the world does not listen,” she said. “If we live in a world where it is OK to be Deaf, then maybe more Deaf people would be more confident in their Deaf identity.

“I would love to see more hearing people take American Sign Language courses that are offered by Deaf teachers. Some people assume they should take ASL classes with a teacher that can hear. However, that is almost like asking a white person to teach a class about black culture.”

Covington hopes this show will encourage the normalization of ASL in theater.

“I love theater. I want to be able to sit and engage like everyone else,” she said.

Greatest reward

Tasker said she is excited simply knowing they pulled the show off and that it meant something to someone. She has loved the Deaf community ever since she became a baby interpreter 10 years ago.

“It has been such an amazing and self-fulfilling career and now I’m merging my passion for theater into the mix and that alone is rewarding,” she said, adding, “This show is something that I feel many theaters are not cut out for.”

Bangs said two great things came her way from this show.

“I now have relationships with people I never in a million years would have felt comfortable approaching. I was at a bar the other night and saw a server signing. I went up to her and was like, “Are you Deaf? Do you sign?” And then I proceeded to tell her about our show,” she said. “She’s a CODA (child of Deaf adults).

“Secondly, my heart just explodes when cast members or crew members tell me that this process has changed their life. That they have grown and discovered things about themselves they never knew or they never knew was possible. Half our cast has never set foot on a stage before.

“We’ve all jumped into the deep end of this pool and only a couple of us can hear and sign — the rest of us are paddling. But it is a marvelous swim!”

“Children Of A Lesser God”

A play by Mark Medoff, presented by Sweet Apple Productions

Where: Stage West Theatre, 821 Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth

When: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 22-24

Tickets: sweetappleproductions.com/buy-tickets

source: star-telegram

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