How these sign language experts are bringing more diversity to theater

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How these sign language experts are bringing more diversity to theater
Zavier Sabio, hosts an ASL Slam at the Bowery Theater, in New York, on Dec. 19, 2022. As productions increasingly include characters and perspectives from a variety of backgrounds, deaf and hearing people who translate the shows for deaf audiences are trying to keep up. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Ilaria Parogni



NEW YORK, NY.- Zavier Sabio didn’t have much exposure to theater growing up. But when he was asked to join the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “A Soldier’s Play” and help make the show — about race relations in the military in the segregated South — accessible to deaf theatergoers, he decided to give it a shot.

“I really wanted to present this story, as well as the interpretation, through a Black lens,” Sabio, who is Deaf, said through an interpreter. To do that, he also relied on his knowledge of Black American Sign Language (a variation of American Sign Language) and Black Deaf culture.

Sabio joined the 2020 production as a co-director of artistic sign language, or DASL, a position that some shows fill in order to create a more cohesive theater experience for deaf audiences. DASLs collaborate with American Sign Language interpreters who specialize in theater, translating the script into ASL and establishing how to perform the signing — while staying true to the spirit of a show. That also entails accounting for representations of race in source material and casting.

Amid a racial reckoning in theater, the work of DASLs and theatrical interpreters from a variety of backgrounds has become increasingly sought after in the past few years — both by deaf audiences and theatrical productions. But while there have been efforts to recruit more diverse interpreters, the push for better representation is not without challenges.

That became evident in November, when Keith Wann, who is white, filed a lawsuit against the Theatre Development Fund and its director, Lisa Carling, accusing them of discrimination. In the suit, Wann charged that a job offer from TDF — for theatrical interpreting for “The Lion King” on Broadway — had been retracted because of his race. A spokesperson for TDF, a nonprofit organization focused on making theater more affordable and accessible, declined to comment. The show, which has a racially mixed cast, draws on African imagery.

Some deaf people took to social media when news of the lawsuit (which was eventually settled) broke, calling for more alignment along racial lines between productions and those providing interpreting services.

“The interpreting field itself is very white-dominated,” said Kailyn Aaron-Lozano, who has worked as a DASL for “My Onliness” at the New Ohio Theatre and “Sweeney Todd” at IRT Theater, speaking through an interpreter.

Aaron-Lozano, who is Deaf and Afro-Latina, explained that having theatrical interpreters and DASLs who are BIPOC (an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color) can have a big effect on the audiences of the productions that focus on those groups. “We are screaming for more BIPOC individuals to be in these positions,” she said. “There are not enough BIPOC interpreters who can fit the roles — and to better understand those nuances and those cultural pieces.”

Jina Porter, a hearing theatrical interpreter and a person of color, said that when there is a mismatch between the interpreting team and what is happening onstage, it can be jarring for deaf viewers. “I feel like you should look at the team and then look at the show and feel like they would all kind of be in the same place together,” she said.

Porter said that ensuring more diversity in theatrical interpreting is also a matter of providing equal access and opportunity. “That’s just the way the world should be,” she said.

Patrice Creamer, a Black and Deaf theater artist who also works as a DASL, said that not every show requires a perfect racial match of actors and those making the show accessible. (She is currently a DASL for “The Lion King” but was not named in Wann’s lawsuit.)




But having that alignment, Creamer said through an interpreter, can help the viewer form a more immediate connection with a show. That was the case, she added, with her work in the 2000 Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where she interpreted for the role of Mary Magdalene, played by Maya Days, who is Black.

“I played that character so that the Deaf audience could really take everything in with their eyes,” she said, “since their focus isn’t as much on what is happening on the stage, but on what’s happening with the interpreter.”

Having deaf people whose first language is ASL working in artistic sign language direction brings a whole other perspective — a deaf one — to a production, Michelle Banks, a Black actress, director and writer who is Deaf, said through an interpreter. DASLs can also have a say in hiring and can choose interpreters who are a better fit for the characters, the culture represented and the chosen signing style, Banks added.

Banks has served as a DASL on shows including Camille A. Brown’s Broadway revival of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which starred Alexandria Wailes, a deaf and mixed race actress, and incorporated ASL into the fabric of the show.

“I worked with Deaf actors, but I also worked with hearing actors,” Banks said of “For Colored Girls.” “So it’s not just Deaf culture that I brought to the production, but also the Black Deaf culture. And I did that with signing that showed that specific culture that is specific to the Black Deaf community.”

She described one scene, for example, in which Wailes signs in Black American Sign Language, or BASL, which relies in a unique way on body language and rhythm. Onstage, Wailes’ signing became almost sensual, she said. “It was totally different from everyday conversational ASL.”

“It became a lot more emotive,” Banks added. “There was a lot more feeling in that.”

Sabio, who also incorporated BASL in the interpreting for “A Soldier’s Play,” said that for authenticity, he also researched and used signs from the historical period in which the play is set.

Monique Holt, a professor in the theater and dance program at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., who also works as a director, actor and DASL, said that although more diversity exists in theater these days, there are not enough interpreters from diverse backgrounds — especially those who, like her, are Asian and Deaf.

Offering more training opportunities and scholarships for those hoping to have a career in the field could make a difference, added Holt, who also mentors people interested in becoming artistic directors for sign language.

Banks believes that theatrical interpreters can also be more thoughtful when booking interpreting roles and “really do some self-assessment: Am I the right person for this role? Am I the right interpreter for this job?”

Theaters that provide interpreting should be part of the solution, too, Creamer said, adding that some of them tend to rely on a narrow group of established interpreters who are predominantly white. “They don’t have people of color on their list,” she said. “And there are excuses: ‘We can’t find them. We don’t know where they are.’ But how hard are those people really looking?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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