SignStage on Tour joins two cultures

Kathryn McGonagle

Deaf and hearing communities work together in play

Deaf and hearing communities work together in play

Oompa loompas, a gold-clad Willy Wonka and props labeled “Chocolate” and “Nut Room” were scattered around actors rehearsing for the production “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” but this wasn’t just any production. It was performed Friday night in American Sign Language with the help of Kent State students.

Even though the event was last Friday, the preparation for it tells a different story.

“I think there’s so much the hearing community can learn from the deaf community,” said Jen Carrick, director of Signs of Grace at Grace Church, which is hosting the play. “And in ignoring that community, we’re really missing out, and I think both the deaf community and the hearing community, the deaf culture and the hearing culture, have so much to offer each other.”

The childhood classic will bridge the hearing and deaf societies, Carrick said, when the actors take the stage to perform the tale about respect, honor and love that will be both signed and spoken. Grace Church in Middleburg Heights has been working in conjunction with SignStage, a part of the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center, to bring “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to life.

“Just because you’re deaf doesn’t mean you can’t be an actor, a professional actor,” said SignStage director Bill Morgan.

He said SignStage, which travels with deaf and hearing actors across the country putting on plays in sign language, agreed to donate the performance to Grace Church in return for rehearsal space.

Six Kent State students worked to make this a special night, from which all the proceeds went to a trip Grace Church members are taking to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to donate time and supplies to the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf.

“Sadly, in Jamaica, deaf children are often neglected, perhaps abused, they don’t have any language,” Carrick said.

CCCD, with help from Grace Church and other missionary work, is able to educate deaf six to 22-year-olds, providing them with language, a vocation and others to connect with. The school relies on donations of basic things we take for granted, Carrick said. For example, she said, printer cartridges, pens and craft supplies are in high demand. She said a shipment of Sharpies brought the principal to tears on their mission trip last year to the same school.

Kent State students help where they can while practicing their signing skills. Some were be ushers, some were selling tickets and others worked in the café before the play.

Kaleigh Lambe, junior American Sign Language major, is required to work in some capacity in the deaf community and said she chose the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” production because of both their work in Jamaica and the bridging of the two cultures here in the U.S.

“This will let people get a better understanding of deaf culture and how deaf people live their everyday lives,” Lambe said. “It’s not necessarily a disability, but a way of life.”

Co-owner and co-director Erin LaFountain, a Kent State alumna from the theater program, said the children are the ones who benefit most from this production. Instead of being forced to watch an interpreter the entire time, the children were able to take in the wonder of the performance, she said.

“The kids sit there the entire performance looking at the side of the stage where the interpreters sit, but now they get to actually experience it. Just to see the look of amazement on their faces is exciting,” LaFountain said.

LaFountain said that sign language isn’t just a tool for communication, but a conduit for creativity, art and beauty in theater, but is a very small, often ignored, niche.

“It’s not just the art of theater, it’s the art of signing, too,” LaFountain said.

David Penny, senior applied conflict management major volunteered, said bringing deaf and hearing kids, as well as deaf and hearing adults, together for a common goal is one of the most fascinating parts.

“I guess a lot of the other countries have no language at all for the deaf, and if we can help out, why not?” Penny said.

Friday night, Kent State students helped to bridge two cultures: the deaf and hearing, raise money for the underprivileged deaf in Jamaica and helping to pull off a marvelous play in a way it’s never been done before for deaf children, Carrick said.

Contact arts and sciences reporter Kathryn McGonagle at [email protected].