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The Edge of Peace: The Importance and Delicacy of ASL in Theatre

Earlier this semester we read Love Person by Aditi Kapil which involved multiple languages including Spoken English and American Sign Language. Through reading the play I realized I didn’t know much about Sign language or those who are deaf. I have always been extremely fascinated when I have gone to events and there are ASL interpreters but I really did not know much about the language and ways in which those who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate. The expressiveness of those who use ASL has always seemed highly theatrical in its nature and the physical storytelling of ASL has always been captivating for me to watch. The importance for all people no matter the disability to experience theatre is something I am extremely passionate about and am always excited when I can go to a performance and see ASL interpreters communicate the show. I began to think why aren’t there more stories written with ASL in the storyline so both hearing and non hearing audiences can interact with one piece of theatre?

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Suzan Zedar’s Ware Trilogy does just that. In the past couple of months, Emerson Stage, Wheelock Family Theatre and Central Square Theatre have teamed up to produce the Ware Trilogy. I had the opportunity to see The Edge of Peace at Central Square Theatre a few weeks ago. I knew nothing about the play, the story or the previous performances but I knew that in some capacity or another ASL would be involved. The moment the production begins there are projections on the back wall that writes out what the actors are speaking and signing. There are two interpreters who play all of the speaking characters as well as a deaf actor and several other speaking actors that know some sign language. This production did a very good job on simultaneously having both the written text, the speaking actor, and the signing actor communicating the story all at once. The signing actors had a very difficult challenge of knowing how to translate each characters mannerisms into the physical language that they were signing. I truly commend those actors and everyone involved in the production for having such an awareness and focus on what each moment to moment action of the play needs.

With that being said, there was something about this production that I could not buy into. For several days now I have been trying to figure out what was it about the production that did not work. Was it the direction, acting, the play or a combination of all three? I have finally come to a conclusion that the core problem of this play is the play and the direction of it. The story is about a small town in Ware Illinois during World War II.  A town native goes off to war and is presumed dead all the while the many different characters struggle to move forward, find new opportunities, and a happy surprise at the end when the boy who is presumed dead is actually alive. Immediately I felt that this story was a story that I have seen and heard  many times before.

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Now that I have experienced all different kinds of theatre I am beginning to sort out for myself what makes a play work and what does not. With a story like Edge of Peace It is very important that the direction not add to the archetype of a cereal box “Brady Bunch” esq family and focus the direction on real people struggling with their lives in a time of uncertainty and war. This play is physically larger than life because of the innate theatricality of the interpreters on stage. I was aware of myself watching a play and for 2 and ½ hours I was outside of an experience and not invited in. The play felt so far away from me and not because of the content or any sense of uncomfortability. If the direction really guided the actors into making more subtle and less “stock” character choices I would have stepped into the world of the given story. This may have been because I did not see the two previous productions in the trilogy and I am curious if that would have changed my understanding or my ability to fully release into the play.

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What I walked away with at the end of this production was an acknowledgement of the importance of telling stories that can be communicated in ASL, but also I realized a certain delicacy and amount of knowledge that must be given to the team as a whole in regards to how the entirety of the play will be perceived. By no means does this mean that a play done in ASL should be catered towards hearing audiences, instead a company really needs to question how can this particular story be told in a way that reflects reality instead of an idea of reality. This play created a desire with me to read more plays that incorporate other languages but particularly ASL into the storyline. It is great that multiple theatre companies in the area are taking the time and investing in taking on a challenge like these three trilogies and exposing the greater Boston audiences to a community that would otherwise be kept silent.

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