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Deaf Actors Demand Equal Stage Time

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Should deaf characters only be played by deaf actors?  Some deaf actors are protesting a new play that features a hearing actor performing a deaf character.  WNYC's Janaya Williams reports.

In the movie version of Carson McCuller’s book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the deaf character John Singer is played by a young Alan Arkin. In the film, the character reads lips and signs, but never speaks. The action revolves around his silent communication with the characters he meets and befriends –a café owner, a black doctor, an alcoholic, and a young tomboy.

Linda Bove is a deaf actress who says that she was touched by the movie version of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter when she saw it. However, she says that in retrospect, there was a lot lacking in Arkin’s depiction of John Singer.

“Imagine someone who doesn’t speak Spanish going to take a Spanish 101 class before they prepared for a role that required fluent speaking in Spanish,” Bove said. “I don’t think anyone would buy that.”

Bove is best known for her role as Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street,a role that she played for more than 20 years. She says that in 1968 when Alan Arkin was tapped to play John Singer, the first generation of deaf actors was still being trained, and most were not ready to provide such a professional level of performance in that role. These days, however, deaf actors can compete for roles that portray their life experiences. Bove insists that when a hearing actor plays a deaf character, audiences are losing out on authenticity.

“They’re just going to swallow the portrayal that they’re given,” Bove said. “They’re not going to know that it may or may not be accurate. You’re perpetuating cultural misunderstandings and linguistic misunderstandings because people can reference these so-called acclaimed performances as legitimate, and I think it promotes a lot of confusion about the elements that are being portrayed by hearing people.”

Bove has spent years struggling to bring more authentic portrayals of deaf people to the screen and stage. As a new cast member on Sesame Street in 1977, she had to coach the writers and producers about deaf culture.

“The writers had very little knowledge about deafness,” Bove said. “They didn’t know about someone who used sign language as their primary way of communication or way of life. What did this mean? The fact that I went to a deaf school, the fact that I was raised in a family where my parents were deaf, that my friends were deaf, that I lived in a deaf world – and that this had to have an effect on my thinking and my values.” She says that when a deaf actor plays a deaf character, there is no guesswork involved. “It’s internal to us.”

In the production of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that’s in previews now at the New York Theater Workshop, the character John Singer signs most of his dialogue, but breaks the silence with two speaking parts. He’s played by the actor Henry Stram, who is not deaf and learned sign language for the role. That casting decision that has angered many people in the deaf acting community, who say that with so few roles for deaf actors, this is a lost opportunity.

Doug Hughes, the director of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, won a Tony award in 2005 for directing the play Doubt. He and Henry Stram have been with the production since it premiered in Atlanta four years ago. He says he’s not surprised by the outcry over casting a hearing actor as John Singer.

“There’s no question that there is a woeful shortage of opportunities for deaf actors,” Hughes said. “The immediate addendum to that is that there is a woeful shortage of opportunity for any actor. It’s a perilous profession.”

Recently, Hughes and the producers met with four deaf actors who opposed the decision to cast a hearing actor as John Singer. The actors made suggestions for making Singer’s speaking role more accessible to a deaf actor, like having the actor sign his lines along with a voiceover. In the end, the production remained the same. For Doug Hughes, the issue boils down to artistic freedom.

“I think the minute you begin to clamp down on the potential for somebody to be able to express themselves in the rather pure rather innocent realm of the stage or any other artistic realm, I think you’re starting to head into some very dangerous territory.” he said.

“These issues come up again and again, and they come up for a number of very complicated, intersecting reasons,” says Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and professor at Columbia University. “It is because of the nature of theater that it’s often the arena for these battles. It’s precisely about pretend and it’s precisely about representation, and both of these ideas clash in these instances.”

In 1990, a Broadway production of Miss Saigon angered many Asian-American actors when Jonathan Pryce, a white Brit, was cast in the lead role of a mixed-race Asian man. More than a hundred protesters showed up on opening night, and the ensuing debate was the inspiration for playwright David Henry Hwang’s play, Yellow Face. Two years ago, when Angelina Jolie was cast as Marianne Pearl, the mixed-race wife of journalist Daniel Pearl in the movie A Mighty Heart, some complained that Marianne Pearl’s race was being “whitewashed.”

Director Doug Hughes says that it’s the nature of acting to inhabit characters that may have lives different from our own.

“Anybody who steps on a stage is doing so in a spirit that we share our humanity with our fellow inhabitants of the planet,” Hughes says. “And the fact that our experience in life is not directly analogous to the experience of the character is one of the great joys of performance. It means that our imaginations are capable of making a valid stab at understanding others. That’s the essence of the drama.”

But for Linda Bove, the experience of being deaf encompasses more than simply not hearing. She says that deaf culture has complexities and nuances that are hard for a hearing actor to portray accurately.

“My native language happens to be American Sign Language, and English is my second language,” Bove says. “We’re talking about a completely different language, and fluency in that language that’s being used in the character…I think an actor rehearsing for three weeks wearing earplugs, but still being able to hear, they really never experience that life struggle that we have. It is very, very, different.”

The issue doesn’t look like it’s going away. The Miracle Worker opens at Circle in the Square Theater in March. The young Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, will be played by another hearing actor – the Oscar -nominated Abigail Breslin. Linda Bove says that the producers of The Miracle Worker met with a group of deaf actors, and they agreed to hire a deaf understudy for the role. She smiles with excitement and says it is a step in the right direction.

“We’re really hopeful that we find the right deaf girl to be the understudy for this production of miracle worker!” Bove says. “It seems like a small step for us, but it’s a very significant small step.”

Director Doug Hughes says that he hopes to work collaboratively with talented deaf actors and deaf theater groups on future projects. And Linda Bove says that the deaf acting community’s organized opposition to these casting choices has turned into a learning opportunity. She says it has highlighted the need to be more proactive in reaching out to producers and arts organizations where deaf roles are concerned.

“I want to see full access, inclusion, accuracy, and integrity,” Bove says. “Knowing that we have the resources to do such a role, I’d like to see due diligence on the part of the producers to consider this at the beginning stages of a production,” she says. “This all has to happen at the beginning.”

Sign language interpretation for this story was provided by Alan Champion.

Listen to Janaya Williams’ story for Morning Edition: