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Performing Deaf Identity Toward a Continuum of Deaf Performance jessica berson Adeaf couple on a cross-country trip stops for the night at an anonymous motel. Later that night, the husband has trouble sleeping, and decides to take a drive. When he returns to the motel, he cannot remember which room he and his wife are staying in. He ponders the problem for a while, and then, smiling, honks the horn for a solid minute. Lights come on throughout the motel, all the rooms illuminated but one. Oblivious to the protests of his neighbors, the man happily goes to the room not lit, where his wife remains peacefully asleep. This joke is a standard one in the Deaf community,1 and it reveals that community’s keen sense of humor. Jokes like this one can be startling to hearing people, who are largely unaware that there is a Deaf culture, with its own language, mores, and comedic style. Performances in the Deaf community vary widely, extending from productions that employ “inside” jokes like the one above to signed translations of canonical works. Throughout this spectrum, performance functions as a means of constructing Deaf identity and staking out relationships between Deaf culture and the hearing mainstream. In this essay I will examine three examples of Deaf performance : the Shakespeare Theater’s 1999 production of King Lear; a 1981 performance art piece by Bruce Hlibok and Norman Frisch; and a 2000 production of Twelfth Night by the Amaryllis Theater Company. Although 42 these selections are by no means a representative sample of Deaf performances , they can be used to demarcate a range of productions, from those intended for “outside” spectators to those created for “inside” audiences. By exploring this range we can begin to develop a sense of the ways in which language has become a de‹nitive and dynamic force in shaping the meanings of Deafness, for both Deaf culture and the larger hearing society. The spectrum of Deaf performance can be described along a continuum that stretches from “outside” to “inside” performance. Outside performances can include interpreted theater and productions in which hearing actors “shadow” Deaf actors, and are intended for audiences that are both hearing and Deaf. I am de‹ning inside performances as those by Deaf artists for Deaf audiences, or those that privilege the theatrical experience of Deaf viewers. My continuum of outside to inside complicates Dorothy Miles and Lou Fant’s differentiation between “sign language theater” and “Deaf theater.” According to Miles and Fant, sign language theater is based on the text of a play written by a hearing author, translated into sign language. It is performed by two casts, a signing cast in prominent position and a less-noticeable voicing cast. The work does not deal with deafness or situations involving deaf characters. In Deaf theater, the work is based on situations unique to Deaf people and is generally performed in a realistic or naturalistic style. Often, the performance is presented solely in sign language, without voice narration. The theme or motif of the work involves issues of concern to Deaf people or con›icts between Deaf and hearing people. (Bangs, “Deaf Performing Arts Experience” 752) Miles and Fant de‹ne both types of theater based on the cultural identity of the artists (Deaf or hearing), the language or languages used (ASL and spoken English), and the content of the performance (situations, mannerisms , and issues speci‹c to Deaf culture). I would like to add to this list of criteria the intended audience, and to use Miles and Fant’s bipolar model to imagine a broader and more ›exible structure within which to examine Deaf performances. Some sign language theater, as de‹ned above, is produced by Deaf directors and actors primarily for Deaf audiences, despite the inclusion of vocal elements; some Deaf theater, while reveling in Deaf culture, invites hearing audiences to partake in that culture as short-term guests. The boundaries between inside and outside performance are more ambiguous than those between sign language and Deaf theater, and allow an examination of performances that partake in aspects of both categories without necessarily belonging to either. However, performances across the Performing Deaf Identity 43 continuum engage language as both form and content, and investigate language ’s power to shape personal and cultural identity. Deafness occupies a unique position within the relatively new ‹eld of disability studies; while hearing-impairment is a disability, Deafness is a mark of a culture. The categorization and construction of...


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