Window Into Deaf Culture Leaves Hands Full of Reflections
Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s journey of exploring the various cultures that surround us here at home brings us to another beautiful culture, Deaf culture. Can You Hear My Hands is a handy lens into the cultural and performance traditions of the Deaf community. It is a truly unique experience— providing the non-Deaf community a window into Deaf culture and providing a show that the Deaf community itself can fully enjoy and relate to.
The cast of two, Ed Chevy (deaf) and Michele Morris (hearing) take us through the play which is comprised of several little acts: personal stories, jokes, songs, skits, and poetry, all with one thing in common- they all have something to do with the deaf and hard of hearing experience.
From the red balloons passed out before the show starts which allow the deaf audience members to experience the music through feeling the vibrations, to the use of American Sign Language (ASL) not just as mere translation “subtitles” but integrated into the core of each piece, this play is a wonderful gift to (and from) the Deaf community. At the same time, hearing audiences can benefit just as much or even more from this experience, as it’s something totally new.
The beginning of the show has a classroom feeling, with use of alphabet charts and repeat-after me songs we get a quick crash course in ASL and other basics needed to follow the rest of the production. Jokes and pantomime move us along into storytelling. Some parts felt stronger than others. My favorites were the personal stories, a skit about the anatomy of the ear that would fit perfectly into the early '90s show Bill Nye the Science Guy, and an Edgar Allan Poe piece. Chevy, a talented performer, was raised in a Deaf family. The personal stories took us into his experiences and included anecdotes about his mother, lessons from his father, and memories from his childhood. They were truly poetic: warm, sweet, and intriguing. The performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” on the other hand was eerie, suspenseful, and captivating. Chevy’s storytelling with Morris’s narration/translation, accompanied by the lighting and sound effects, created a mini-masterpiece— a chilling treat perfect for Halloween. Please heed the warning given prior to the show regarding the scariness of this scene (which is at the end of the play). If you are bringing children and are not familiar with the story I recommend “google-ing it” to assess if it’s appropriate for your child. If it is, it’ll probably be their favorite part; if it’s not, be ready for tears.
Overall it was clear that this play was the product of an exciting creative process. There were many challenges to tackle which are inherent in this type of creative work— the diversity of the audience and their different needs, the bilingualism, choosing and editing the content itself… essentially creating a whole new type of fusion theatre. There were some transitions that could be tighter, a few places where the pace could be picked up a bit, and I would have liked more overall cohesion between the various acts. There was a lot going on. I feel like this show is a like bag of seeds- with a variety of content and ideas which could be grown into their own distinct, fully developed plays. That being said, HTY is definitely on to something. I feel like this is just the beginning of a whole new journey, an important one. I am grateful to be able to share in this first step. The possibilities which this show has opened leaves my mind swirling with thoughts, reflections, ideas, and an eagerness to see how far this type of creative work can go. Above all I appreciate the new insights into this rich culture to which I’ve had very little exposure.