25 years ago one would be hard pressed to find a show that offered ASL interpretation for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in any city in the United States. The Deaf community itself would need to organize nights with hired interpreters in order to understand any theatre. International company tours like Nalaga’at Theatre Ensemble’s Not By Bread Alone, shown at the Paramount Theatre, are significant milestones we can track for disability involvement and accessibility within the theatre. Perhaps a little less obvious but also immediately impressive is the amalgamation of historically combative religions; Jews, Muslims, Samaritans and Christians, coming under one roof to work as a group that functions with trust, that depends on one other, and that only succeeds when they work together.
The show consists of 11 Deaf-Blind actors and 10 interpreters (deaf and hearing). Many might enter the theatre expecting to be thrown into a disabled experience – for 90 minutes leave an abled life in order to step into the shoes of another and briefly touch upon the natural struggles of daily life without the aid of certain biological faculties. Although the Nalaga’at Centre offers dining experiences that replicate that intention, this show does not ask anyone, actor or audience, to pretend to be anything other than what they are. Everyone is invited into this experience, and they show that with shear quantity of languages and communication systems that are represented: Hebrew, Israeli Sign Language, glove language, drumming, English subtitles, brail programs, English audio captioning.
As Itzik describes at the beginning (also represented in the program notes), each actor lands somewhere on the spectrum of hearing and vision loss, ranging from limited ability to profoundly deaf/blind. During the first scenes, I succumbed to habit and attempted to seek patterns and categorize the actors; clocking those who spoke, those who were able to navigate the stage without assistance, those that needed tactile cues, etc. I’m sure I’m not the only one who did this, however as time went on these facts provided no significant to me and only satisfied my vague curiosity. The play made me ask myself; why does it matter? Does it make any difference? I found greater enjoyment and meaning when I relaxed my judgments and listened to the stories.
The entire show is framed by the time it takes to bake bread. The audience walks in to the actors kneading the dough, we are introduced to each actor as they place it in the ovens, and applaud the performance as the bread comes out. While the bread rises so do their thoughts and we are treated to humorous dreamscapes of what I recognize to be daily luxuries; watching the television, reading a book, going bird watching. Although these activities are simple they perform them with vibrant energy and vaudevillian clowning. It became a splendid mix of theatricality and reality. In a montage of activity that represented Italy, the audience laughed heartily when a fully garbed Pope blessed the stage while spaghetti was hastily being served and a sailor and woman were sharing an oversized 3 scoop ice cream cone. The theatricality was joyous and sweet, and when coupled with the reality of the being escorted on and offstage, or the interpreters voicing what they signed, or the loud drum beats that marked a blocking cue, it sank deeper than theatricality and became illuminating. To witness a foreignness in activities I am so familiar gives on the one hand appreciation, and on the other hand pride that no matter what challenges these actors face, they find such joy in life.
The only requirement for any human to tell a story is to have a soul, and the soul emitting from this stage hit the back walls with gusto. Of course there was no trace of social masking one so often sees. Some of the moments I was touched by most were the minute, accidental bumps to a table, or a hand searching for another’s arm. For the majority of the show I was simply enjoying the stories, watching these people open their lives generously to us, but despite all the beautiful writing and signing about what difficulties they face, these brief moments of struggle that happened in the moment grounded me in the piece more than anything. The final image of the bow is a good example. Starting at both ends, it was a true wave to the center, lowering the hands and torso and they felt the person next to them do so. These moments were small and simple yet they encapsulate exactly what the actors are bringing to the table: incredible dedication despite obstacles.
Not By Bread Alone took two years of rehearsal to put up. Extreme commitment to what I image to be an arduous process. But the result is aesthetically peaceful, easy to take in, and delightful. I think the biggest success of this show lies in its simplicity. Everyone onstage was welcoming and not the least bit intimidating, a feeling some get when faced with an underappreciated minority who suddenly has a platform to express themselves. Instead we were welcomed with a sea of kind faces. There was many shared stories of loneliness and fear, yet there is no dire call to action. Because they just let the show live, it encourages a subconscious acceptance of those different from us as capable, loving, fearing, dreaming individuals. Commonly associated pairings such as deaf & mute, blind and unaware, disabled and unintelligent/unhappy/undeserving were all debunked in a delightfully pleasant 90 minutes. The natural barriers between actor and audience, disabled and abled, were dissolved and the last physical one was eradicated when the audience was invited onstage. The entire audience was happy to join the actors onstage and not only sample the only bread that’s ever been fully knead, baked, and eaten on a stage, but meet the actors to congratulate and thank them. As expressed in the show, if no one did make the effort of reaching out a hand and giving a squeeze, then they wouldn’t know anyone was there. Ultimately it left me hungry for more delicious bread and more delicious theatre.