On the NY Theatre Workshop-Deaf Actor Controversy: Where Do You Draw the Line?


American Sign Language.jpeg“A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface.”

That statement by Linda Bove, a deaf actress and Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts board member, was offered in response to the newest fracas enveloping New York Theatre Workshop, a.k.a. The Home That My Name is Rachel Corrie Nearly Ruined. In this case, the play is Rebecca Gilman’s adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which opens on Thu., Dec. 3 in a coproduction with The Acting Company. On Oct. 14, the New York Times covered the controversy:

Story continues below.

…Gilman…made a bold and controversial artistic leap: opening and ending the play with speeches by a central character, John Singer, who is deaf and mute throughout the book.

The monologues turn Singer into more than the cipher he is through large swaths of the 1940 novel. But by bestowing speech on Singer, Ms. Gilman took license with a character of symbolic importance to generations of deaf readers – a decision she justified because, McCullers wrote, Singer was once taught to speak as a boy. Inevitably, though, Ms. Gilman has made it difficult for a deaf actor to play Singer, now a speaking role.

The play had its premiere in Atlanta in 2005, directed by the Tony Award winner Doug Hughes (“Doubt”), with a hearing actor cast as Singer; it drew some strong reviews, and no objections from organizations for the deaf. But now that the play is receiving a major production at New York Theater Workshop, starting on Nov. 13, deaf actors and deaf theater groups have begun to protest the artistic and casting choices involving the Singer role.

Deaf actors and deaf theater groups have been pushing their viewpoint in a number of ways in addition to landing that coveted piece in the Times. Indeed, they have demanded that Hughes fire the actor playing Singer, Henry Stram, who originated the role in a 2005 production in Atlanta. Hughes has refused to fire him, so the question is whether the deaf community will go nuclear on the Workshop — to protest, to boil the dialogue so as to force Hughes’ hand or to at least surround the production with so much negative press that, inevitably, the Workshop will be forced to change course.

This controversy proves that the issues around color-blind, gender-blind and demographically appropriate casting, not to mention the appropriate racial/religious makeup of certain productions, remain unresolved in the theater. On the one hand, producers and directors must reserve the right to cast as they see fit; indeed, Patrick Healy’s reporting in the Times noted that the “audition process for the role of Singer in the 2005 Atlanta production included ‘due-diligence outreach’ to the deaf population about possible actors.” On the other hand, Bobbie Beth Scoggins, President of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), has issued a statement lambasting the Workshop’s casting of Stram. Her group, she says, “believes in culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate casting of deaf roles for mainstream theatrical and related productions; such roles are best carried out by professional deaf performing artists.”

To explore the issue further, I contacted Bove through an intermediary, who agreed to go on the record. I wanted to know, for example, whether her constituents similarly objected to a white man, Bartlett Sher, directing the revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway, especially given the late playwright August Wilson’s well-known views of black theater in the United States. Or whether it would be acceptable for a Jew, for example, to object and protest if the role of Eugene Jerome in the Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs wasn’t played by a young Jewish man. Even Theater Breaking Through Barriers, former Theater By the Blind, uses sight-impaired as well as seeing actors.

In other words, where is the line drawn and who draws it?

“When you refer the productions of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Bove told me, “we feel that it is a situation of apples and oranges. We do not profess to speak for all cultural communities, but we do speak on behalf of the deaf community. From our perspective, there is no slippery slope.”

Story continues below.

She continued: “From our perspective, deaf people have a rich culture and language. Many of us are theater patrons, and when we see a hearing actor play a deaf character, it is offensive. We have yet to see a hearing actor in a deaf role that has mastered sign language or who genuinely understands what it is like to be deaf. For us, hearing actors will never even begin to approximate what it is like to be a deaf person. For us, it is like seeing white actors attempt to ‘act black.’ The difference between a hearing actor and a deaf actor is night and day.”

Bove noted that the deaf community does object to the fact that Hughes is not hearing-impaired. Instead, she said, “We simply see that this situation arose from the lack of knowledge that Rebecca Gilman, the writer, and Doug Hughes have of our community. If they had taken the time to ask us about how to stage a deaf character, they would have known that there are multiple approaches to staging deaf characters, such as having a hearing actor voice for the signing, deaf character onstage or offstage. They would have not made it a requirement that the actor ‘speak’ the monologue. They would have realized that a deaf actor in the role would have added clarity and definition to the role and most of all, a human element and authentic experience that audiences would have picked up on. And they would have realized that it would not have taken much effort to rewrite the role for a signing deaf actor.”

Moreover, Bove wrote, “We object to the fact that The Acting Company did not make sufficient attempt to audition the best and the brightest that our community has to offer. They brought in only two deaf actors, according to records they have sent us, in spite of the substantial pool of deaf actors that they could have drawn from. If they had tried just a bit harder, they would have known that our actors would have brought everything — and more — that a hearing actor brings to the role.”

She concluded: “We are also tired of inaccurate portrayals of our community. We recognize that the producers, writer, and director are coming from a position of limited knowledge of our community. We want the world to understand our community, and we are tired of explaining away the stereotypes that have come from previous portrayals of our community that have wronged us.”