CEDAR RAPIDS — The voices of both sides were heard, via American Sign Language and spoken word.
Members of the hearing and deaf communities met in a public forum Tuesday to discuss the controversy surrounding Theatre Cedar Rapids’ upcoming play, “Tribes,” now in rehearsal. When no deaf actors came to auditions in late August, the community theater cast hearing actors in the key roles of Billy, a deaf young man who was raised in a hearing world, and Sylvia, the young woman he meets who is losing her hearing and introduces him to the deaf community — a new family, or tribe, in which he finally finds his identity.
Identity is the heart of the local deaf community’s grievance over the casting. About 60 people gathered for the forum, held at Connectivity, 3117 First Ave. SE, and organized by Hands Up Communications and Community Hands, which facilitate and advocate for people who are deaf.
Theatre Cedar Rapids staff and volunteers were there, to listen and engage in a dialogue with people upset that they didn’t receive word about the play and its auditions in time to help with the project and spread the word among the deaf community. Now that they have been engaged, they are pleading with TCR to postpone the play so they can help find a deaf actor at least for Billy — and to collaborate with TCR to present the show’s message accurately to all audience members, hearing or not.
Attendees repeatedly spoke of their frustration at feeling left out of the conversation, of having their culture oppressed further by not having actors in those key roles who speak their language fluently. They say it’s not possible to learn sign language in the seven-week rehearsal period before the show opens Oct. 21.
The conversation was civil among all parties, but the intensity was clear, as more than one person from the deaf community was moved to tears while speaking and/or signing.
“I am Billy,” Carly Armour of Iowa City said as her voice choked with emotion.
Like the character in the play, she is deaf but was raised using her voice, so she feels especially passionate about the issues of identity and the need for authentic portrayals. By giving the role to a hearing actor, she said Theatre Cedar Rapids is sending a message, intentional or not, that further oppresses the deaf community.
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“At the very least, give us a chance to find someone for Billy,” she said. “If you really want the support of the deaf community, listen to us. Don’t ignore us.”
Casey Prince, TCR’s executive director, fielded their questions and assured them he will take their messages back to his staff, the board and other decision-makers.
“I am not here to defend our position,” he said. “I am here to listen, and I really am hearing it all. I don’t know to what degree our play will evolve. We are continuing to talk. ... Our mistake was that we tried to figure it out on our own. I am thankful for this moment ... thankful for this conversation.”
UNI Theatre will host another discussion from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Bertha Martin Memorial Theatre at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.