Deaf community raises objections to upcoming Theatre Cedar Rapids play

Production of 'Tribes' features hearing actors playing deaf roles

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The show is going on. But there is controversy.

After passionate pleas and objections from the deaf community, Theatre Cedar Rapids is moving forward with producing the play “Tribes” in its original slot of Oct. 21 to Nov. 12.

The play tells the story of a deaf man raised in a hearing family who has had to learn how to communicate on their terms, since they won’t learn sign language. When he meets a woman who is losing her hearing, “he finally understands what it means to be understood.”

The controversy arose this week on social media, after a cast list was announced by theater officials on Aug. 31. The cast includes hearing actors in the main roles of Billy and Sylvia, who speak and use sign language as deaf characters. Members of the deaf community objected, saying a hearing person can’t authentically portray a deaf person, and wouldn’t have time to become proficient enough in sign language to be credible, or understood, by deaf audience members.

Carly Armour of Iowa City, who is deaf and serves as an advocate for the deaf community, initiated the social media conversation on Facebook.

“I am deaf and learned about the hearing cast because a deaf friend of mine who acts in the role of Billy in ‘Tribes’ in Colorado had informed me,” she told The Gazette via email on Friday. “It’s specifically a production with a story about deaf oppression.”

Part of the argument is that Theatre Cedar Rapids didn’t reach out to the deaf community early enough to get the word out about the auditions and opportunity.

The show was first announced this past spring, and Director David Schneider said he sent an email to the Iowa Association for the Deaf on Aug. 21, one week before auditions.

“I am the first person to say we could have done this a lot better,” said Leslie Charipar, TCR’s artistic director. “I wish I knew what some of the questions were to ask. My negligence was that I didn’t do enough research and enough conversation with the deaf community to really collaborate with them ... from the get-go, from the moment we decided to do that title.”

Theater officials put the show on the season schedule because “it’s an issue we haven’t explored here yet,” said Charipar, who is in her ninth season at Theatre Cedar Rapids. The organization did, however, stage “Children of a Lesser God” in 1994, with a deaf actress in the lead role.

“Tribes” is to be performed in TCR’s 100-seat Grandon Studio. “The intimacy of the Grandon lends itself to the intimacy of the story,” Charipar said, allowing the audience to “be a fly on the wall” watching Billy’s “idiosyncratic and politically incorrect” family dynamic.

The cast has begun working with a sign language instructor, which also raises concerns in the deaf community.

“Imagine someone who doesn’t speak Chinese going to take a Chinese 101 class before they prepared for a role that required fluent speaking in Chinese,” Kathy Miller, president of the Iowa Association of the Deaf, told The Gazette via email. “I don’t think anyone would buy that.”

Miller continued: “ ... We are talking about a completely different language, and fluency in that language that’s being used in the character. Imagine an actor rehearsing for three weeks wearing earplugs, but still being able to hear. They really never experience that life struggle that the deaf community have. It is very, very, different.”

Miller said seeing hearing people in deaf roles frustrates her.

“We can see through the falsehood the second they start signing,” she said. “Hearing actors tend to lack the facial expressions that play such a huge role in (American Sign Language) grammar. Deaf actors are right here, ready to pour our hearts out into a role.”

Miller said there are many deaf actors working hard to be seen. “We, the deaf community, want to show how we can bring the beauty of deaf culture to a character, but more importantly, how we can bring our abilities as actors,” she said.

Charipar has been weighing the options from canceling the show to postponing it or recasting it. In the end, she agreed with a cast member who didn’t want to lose the momentum of the dialogue that has exploded on Facebook and blogs.

“If we don’t take this opportunity right now, when emotions are high and there are lots of people engaged in the conversation, when are we ever going to have an opportunity like this again,” she said.

Armour counters that proceeding with the show as-is further oppresses the deaf community and devalues the integrity of the play.

“It’s not equity nor social justice,” she said. “Providing alternate solutions such as deaf mentoring ... is like, ‘Hey, you’re welcome on this bus but sit in the back or lower deck.’ ”

For more on the dialogue, see Armour’s Facebook post and Theatre Cedar Rapids’ response.

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