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.”

Story continues below.

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.”

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.”

  • While reading this I just kept thinking, Henry Stram is the nicest man on the face of the earth, and it’s a shame he’s been put at the epicenter of this.

  • And only an amputee would be able to understand how to play the role of an amputee, and only a blind person would be able to accurately portray the nuances and second-sight of that role, and only a corpse can adequately represent a dead body, so unless you’re willing to die on stage, stop discriminating against and stealing jobs from those working-stiff thespians.

    As far as I’m concerned, this will create about as much “negative press” for the New York Theater Workshop as the film “Tropic Thunder” did for using the word “retard.” Which is to say, none. I understand that Linda Bove isn’t professing to speak for “all cultural communities,” but then it’s not playwright Rebecca Gilman’s job to speak for all communities either, and Carson McCullers was not being exploitative of deaf people in writing her novel.

    Also, consider the subtext of Bove’s ire: if a non-deaf actor should never be allowed to portray a deaf character, then a deaf actor should never be able to portray a non-deaf actor–that would be “offensive” to the non-deaf community. In theater, I guess I’m somewhat of an objectivist, and I trust Doug Hughes’s casting: take the actor who works best in the part, period.

    Pardon me if this makes me come off like an asshole, but it’s early on a Monday.

  • Jen

    I went to college with a hearing impaired actress who also had cerebral palsy, which impaired her movement slightly. Our theatre department did not choose plays that featured disabled/deaf characters just because she was attending. She auditioned for every part she was right for, and was cast prominently in at least two productions a year — and in fact landed a scene-stealing role in Aristophanes’ “The Clouds”. Had I been able to cast her in my senior thesis play (a Pinter) I would have; alas the role was for a young boy, not a girl (she was also short-statured). The one thing that knowing her taught me was that there is not only a role for every actor, but that there is no such thing as a “disability”. She never used it as a pawn, nor should any other actor.

    What I want to know is how many hearing-impaired actors auditioned for Doug Hughes. Did he put out feelers? If the answer is “yes”, he auditioned deaf actors, then this entire argument by Ms. Bove is irrelevant and frankly, a ploy for publicity.

    According to her logic, when applied elsewhere, any production of Fiddler on the Roof must have an entirely Jewish cast, actors in Angels In America must show proof of being Mormon and gay (or both), and The Miracle Worker needs to find a deaf/mute.

  • I must agree with sentiments expressed by both Aaron and Jen. Isn’t there a reason why we call the craft “ACTING”?

  • Deej in NYC

    Isn’t it marvelous that the Jets and Sharks are ALWAYS played by straight young men…imagine the horror should a gay dancer/actor be considered for those heterosexual roles…it would be like having a straight man play Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles! Don’t tell anyone, but I once played a Munchkin (and I’m 6’3″)…and I subsequently cast a little person (his height: 3’7″) in the role of Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha. Baum and Cervantes must have been frowning from the beyond. Audiences, however, seemed quite okay about it. I was a good Munchkin, he was a terrific Sancho. The stories were well served…as a director, I usually think that is of primary importance.

  • miriam

    Good Lord, how is it that everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE, including the deaf protesters – have totally missed the real problem with this adaptation ?!? I have been a sign language interpreter since 1983, and I am well aware of the deaf community’s struggles with breaking into the theater, having culturally and linguistically deaf actors play those roles, etc etc. Casting hearing actors happens in Hollywood, in the theater world, you name it. The hearing actor who is playing the role doesn’t deserve the vitreole, even though he could have considered how unprepared he might have been to play the role. By that I mean he would have been unprepared had it meant playing the role as Ms. McCullers intended it. The part of this story which pains me the most is the fact that Ms. Gilman, who adapted the script, is a coward. I have read, and re-read this book several times and the thing that strikes me again and again is the fact that NO ONE in the book listens to Singer or truly knows his thoughts and feelings. In the passages about him, I don’t believe the self-referent “I” is ever used. By giving Singer a voice and narration POV we, the audience, are no longer the same as every other character in the book. They don’t listen, they don’t have to. They take and take, and never think of what depths Singer is hiding, and since they don’t sign and don’t want to ask his opinions – just have a father confessor to which they can vent and angst – they never know him. Ms. Gilman is not willing to go the distance and make the audience uncomfortable. She takes that experience away from us. We should leave the theater wondering about Singer just as everyone else who must deal with the aftermath of his suicide and ruminate upon his death is wondering about him. We are supposed to be complicit in their self-preoccupation.

    If a deaf actor HAD gotten the role, and then you had someone “voicing” the lines while he signed them, the mistake would still have been a glaring one. To me the casting is inconsequential compared to the travesty of giving Singer the voice he wasn’t supposed to have. It should be re-written for this reason alone.

  • Robert Roth

    Was “due diligence” actually given? The Acting Company commissioned the adaptation for their group, and cast their shows from within the company. Did they really intend to go outside the company for arguably the most significant role in “Heart is a Lonely Hunter”? They auditioned, they say, two actors that were deaf, and turned them down because they did not speak well enough. Goodness, what did they expect? Many, though not all, deaf people that I know that had spoken language before they became deaf at an early age gradually lost their ability to speak clearly over time. Others, who obtained the ability to speak even though born deaf or deafened at an age, rarely speak like a hearing person would. As a matter of fact, knowing one of the persons that did audition, I was surprised that they turned him down as not speaking well enough, considering that he has quite clear speech. So, was Gilman educated enough on the culture and language of the deaf to understand that she set the bar impossibly high such that the character no longer resembled the reality of deafness? Did Hughes really look at the character to see how it could be explored on the stage? Due diligence is auditioning two deaf actors? Let’s drop that canard as an argument in this discussion: They had no intention of hiring a deaf actor in the first place.
    Now consider that Cullers wrote Singer as a mute character, even though, as Gilman infers from McCullers’ writing, he was able to speak in childhood. For some reason, he was mute. There are many reasons why he could have been mute, but a logical reason, given that Singer was deaf also, is that he was ashamed of his unintelligible speech, and CHOSE not to speak. Where is the authenticity that actors and directors strive for in theatre? Is a deaf character in a play so devoid of humanity that writers and actors seek to “fix” him/her by giving them speech?

  • Chas Warner

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

    HELLOOO, she just equated being black with having a disability… Why is everyone missing this?

  • I know I’m coming in late to this, but I agree 100% with Aaron’s comment. And I think Ms. Bove’s race-baiting parallel is incredibly cheap.

    Yes, I can sympathize with how frustrating it can be for a deaf actor to get passed over for the role of a deaf character in favor of a non-deaf actor, it can be incredibly frustrating. But I think her comments constitute the worst aspects of political correctness. (And I think we should be working on ways to excise political correctness from the arts instead of finding new ways to instill it.)

  • jody

    henry stram was apparently the best actor for the role. i don’t like the “casting police” who tell directors how to do their work. it is outrageous. and we all know this PC casting stuff only goes one way.

  • Ked

    I understand that Bove’s comment can be misconstrued, however it needs to be said that for many Deaf people not being able to hear is NOT a disability and therefore she is not saying that being black is a disability, she is merely saying there are certain roles that are better played by someone of the same background as the character.