Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Straddling two worlds — deaf and hearing — on and off stage

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - Joey Caverly and Helen Cespedes play a deaf couple dating as they rehearse "Tribes" at Studio Theatre.

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A couple of the regulars were irked.

“They’ve handled this terribly. I want to be in my usual section,” one of the Studio Theatre season ticket-holders said to the man at the ticket booth, rolling her eyes and huffing a bit.

On a Sunday afternoon, she was going to see “Tribes,” a riveting play that centers on a deaf man born to a raucous and opinionated hearing family and his struggle to find his place in the world — his tribe.

In one moving scene, the characters with hearing loss describe how the hearing world grudgingly, reluctantly and infrequently makes room for them.

When the simple act of communicating with someone else is treated as a burden, it’s easier to stop trying and simply stay with your own tribe.

Exhibit A of this was right there at the box office, where the women raising a ruckus at the ticket counter were angry that their usual seats were being turned into a special section for deaf audience members so they would be close to a sign language interpreter.

I was hoping they cringed a little during the painful scene that unfolded during the show. That moment was a great metaphor for the way the hearing world in the District views and often treats the vibrant deaf community concentrated around Gallaudet University.

It’s the nation’s largest and oldest university for the deaf. President Abraham Lincoln signed its charter in 1864. And with an annual enrollment of about 1,700, Gallaudet is an epicenter for the deaf community.

I see the struggles when the deaf and hearing interact around town often enough. When store clerks get frustrated, I try to be nice and fake-sign worse than the Mandela funeral guy. The best waitresses (Erica at Yo Sushi) learn a few, simple signs to communicate with customers.

You think we’re all pretty advanced, accommodating and friendly? Watch that viral Duracell ad about the struggles of legally deaf Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman. I choke up every time I see the scenes depicting a cute little Coleman being “picked on and picked last,” picking his hearing aids out of the dirt, then not being picked at all during the NFL draft.

He made history by becoming the first legally deaf offensive player in NFL history, then again by going to the Super Bowl. (He was the reason some uncommitted fans rooted for the Seahawks.)

But the balance between the deaf and hearing worlds that he straddles is far more complex than making sure the quarterback takes out his mouthpiece so Coleman can lip-read.

There is a complex hierarchy in the deaf community, where folks born deaf who grow up signing have more social cred than those who read lips and don’t sign, like the main character in “Tribes.”

“Everyone knows someone who is deaf, so this is all so interesting,” said the woman sitting next to me at the play that day.

I wanted to disagree with her. But then I remembered meeting the friends of my in-laws who have a deaf daughter and their struggles with accepting her embrace of deaf culture and rejection of the hearing world after she left home.

It’s clearly a common theme, since studies estimate that about 90 percent of the deaf population is born into hearing families.

And in the play, we see the loud and boisterous family play piano, have contentious clashes and share animated jokes while the deaf child, Billy, sits on the sideline, never fully invited inside their world.

The last time the deaf hierarchy made big headlines here was in 2006, when protests and arrests roiled the Gallaudet campus over the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes as president. She speaks English, was born to a hearing family and didn’t learn to sign until she was an adult.

That puts her at the bottom of the heap in parts of the deaf community. Eventually, her appointment was revoked.

“Tribes” — which just had its Studio Theatre run extended to March 2 — takes a close look at the deaf community’s pecking order. One of its stars, Joey Caverly, is a Gallaudet grad who pulled on a university sweatshirt right after a recent performance for a discussion with the audience.

“I grew up like that. Those were my frustrations, too,” one audience member told Caverly after the play.

The hard-of-hearing audience members were seated in the center back rows, and the sign interpreters stood in a middle row illuminated by tiny, white lights shining up at them.

During the discussion after the play, some of the deaf stood up and gave impassioned testimony — using sign and speech — about how their own lives were on that stage.

One man, who was born in China, described through an American Sign Language interpreter how his hearing family marginalized, mocked and mistreated him his whole life. He related to “how emotional and angry” the play was. He said he had written a script about his own life called “Birdcage” because “growing up, I felt like I was a bird in a cage.”

He went on in very colorful sign language (some of it hearing people already know) to explain how he broke from the tribe he was born into and found a home in the deaf cultural tribe here in America. He received lots of applause (hands waving in the air) from the audience for telling his story.

“That was my own life when I look back on it,” Caverly said. And many people have told him the same thing.

But he doesn’t want people to think that the play — although embraced by much of the deaf community — is limited to that story. “There are hierarchies in every community,” he said.

He’s right. Whether it’s Coleman fighting to get into the NFL on his own terms or the deaf immigrant from China finding friends who won’t mock him, most of us can relate to the search for or struggle with our own tribe.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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