CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD and Proper Deaf Representation

I am a hearing person. Therefore, I hope that any non-hearing people who wish to further contribute and/or correct any statements I make in the following post feel free to do so.

Reading this script by Mark Medoff has its own learning curve. First, you must read all of the specifications indicated at the beginning before reading this play, especially the character descriptions and the author’s notes, to know who is a hearing person, who is deaf, and who can and cannot read lips.

The play follows the story of James Leeds, a speech teacher at a State School for the Deaf, who ends up falling in love with Sarah Norman, a student at the school, deaf from birth. Their relationship is plagued, however, by an inability to cross the deaf/hearing line to fully understand each others’ situations.

Here is my favorite part of the play — it is designated in the author’s notes before the play begins “that – in any professional production of this play – the roles of Sarah, Orin, and Lycia be performed by deaf or hearing impaired actors.” The author does this to further the play’s own meaning – that it is impossible for a hearing person to truly understand the deaf condition. In order to most accurately portray a deaf or hearing impaired character, the actor must be deaf or hearing impaired.

This play was even more difficult to read than plays normally are, because of how visually-centered it is and must be in order to work. It is easy to forget that Sarah does not speak, because her lines are written in English on the page. But she does not speak aloud in the play — the one time she does, she speaks “as badly as she has supposed she does.” It is easy to associate ASL with English and even think of it as a form of English, but that is not the case at all. It is a language all it’s own – a visual language, a physical language, almost hieroglyphic. English is spoken – it is grammatical, written, and carefully enunciated. As the author also indicates, “The difference between ASL and Signed English basically is that the former is far more conceptual and pictorial than grammatical, Signed English employing word-by-word technique.”

This play takes place in the mind of a hearing person. His first language is English. Everything Sarah signs to him, he translates into spoken English, whether for the audience’s sake or his own.

While it may take place in James’ mind, I believe this play is really about Sarah and James’ own inability to really understand her. She gets frustrated when he tries to speak for her or doesn’t properly translate his spoken word conversations between him and other hearing people for her. She gets frustrated when he refuses to translate her signing to hearing people in the room who don’t know ASL. He doesn’t understand her absolute refusal to learn English and how to read lips – why she would continue her attempts at communicating in her own way in a world that doesn’t know her language.

One of their more interesting conversations is about music and whether or not Sarah can fully experience it. Sarah says she can feel it. James argues with her and says that to feel it is only a small part. My mind was brought to signalongs — videos of people signing along to popular music — and this article, whose author is concerned with how signalongs contribute to a misunderstanding of ASL. When ASL interpreters choose to translate song lyrics without fully understanding how complex the interpretation process is (for example, thinking that they can simply sign a word and match it up with the lyrics), they bastardize ASL. They don’t understand that their videos are catering to a hearing audience that want to feel like they are a part of “spreading the gospel of ASL,” while their deaf audience finds their signs difficult to understand and further excludes them.

Therefore, I have my doubts as to whether or not the relationship between James and Sarah can last. In the end, they supposedly reconcile, but I had yet to see whether or not James showed any  sign of understanding why Sarah does not want to speak. Her big speech at the end, for a hearing person like me, most accurately portrays how she feels:

“For all my life I have been the creation of other people. The first thing I was ever able to understand was that everyone was supposed to hear but I couldn’t and that was bad. Then they told me everyone was supposed to be smart but I was dumb. Then they said, oh no, I wasn’t permanently dumb, only temporarily, but to be smart I had to become an imitation of the people who had from birth everything a person has to have to be good: ears that hear, mouth that speaks, eyes that read, brain that understands. Well, my brain understands a lot, and my eyes are my ears; and my hands are my voice; and my language, my speech, my ability to communicate is as great as yours. Greater, maybe, because I can communicate to you in one image an idea more complex than you can speak to each other in fifty words. . . for all my life people have spoken for me. She says; she means; she wants. As if there were no I. As if there were no one in her who could understand. Until you let me be an individual, an I, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you can do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. . .”

This play was first performed in 1979. Now, in 2016, we are still struggling to get proper deaf representation right. Until we can stop catering ASL videos to hearing audiences, until we can stop equating ASL with English, until we can understand how draining it is to be hearing impaired in a world that can’t stop talking – until that time, we cannot be joined.

My overall rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

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