When Jackie Kinner was a child, she wanted to be a singer. She would picture herself in front of an audience that hung on every note. The fact that she was deaf and could speak only with difficulty did not alter her ambition. She recalls thinking it would be a good gimmick: "The deaf singer."
When she bowed to reality and abandoned that plan, she traded it for one that might seem equally unattainable: acting. But with "Children of a Lesser God" (playing through Sunday at the Warner), in which the leading lady must be deaf and speak in sign language, she has arrived in show business. Her achievement will be marked at a reception today where congratulations will be relayed to her and costar Rico Peterson from, among others, Nancy Reagan and Mayor Marion Barry.
Along with the other young actresses who have played the demanding role of Sarah Norman on Broadway and on tour, Kinner is part of a small cadre of talented deaf performers who has been exposed to audiences outside the theater for the deaf, and are now looking for more opportunities for work.
Jackie Kinner can talk, but her speech is "not great," she admitted. The interview was conducted with the help of her husband, Joe Kinner, who teaches African history at Gallaudet College. He translated the questions and her responses.
"She says she feels more confident with sign language," said Kinner. And indeed, Jackie Kinner signs with an intensity and grace that is almost hypnotizing. "She says that [when she speaks] she has to really concentrate on consonants; it's very tiring," her husband translated. "She says she needs voice lessons, but how many directors would be willing to train her before casting her?"
Her deafness is hereditary; both her parents and her younger sister are deaf. She was raised in New York City, where her father is a printer, and attended the Lexington School for the Deaf. Sign language was not permitted there, because, she explained, of a decision made long ago at a national conference for educators of the deaf. Instead, teachers spoke over a microphone, sometimes holding a piece of paper over their mouths to prevent lip reading, in the usually vain attempt to pierce the silence. As a result: "I missed a lot."
Although spoken and signed language are as closely integrated in "Children of a Lesser God" as they are likely to get in a work for the mainstream audience, deaf and hearing-impaired people still have a hard time following it because so much of the sign language must be truncated for dramatic purposes. Nonetheless, she said, "Deaf people love the play. For the first time they see a deaf actress on the stage, and it is about themselves."
The play deals with several issues, including the question of "deaf rights" and the conflict between a hearing man and the deaf woman he falls in love with and marries. The man sees his wife's refusal to learn to speak as a cop-out, an escape from the real world, while she sees it as an essential act of independence. It is not an issue that concerns Jackie and Joe Kinner.
"She doesn't see herself as a deaf person first," Joe translated for Jackie. "Or think of me as a hearing person. She thinks of herself as a woman, a wife and an actress. Nor does she think that I think of her as a deaf person."
Nor do they argue, as the couple in the play does, that if they had a child and it was born deaf, the father would think the child somehow defective. Since Jackie's deafness is hereditary, the Kinners' child would have a 50 percent chance of being deaf, she said.
"I love Jackie," said Joe Kinner. "We're the kind of people who would give any child all the love and affection there is to give."
"When we argue, it's not related to deafness or hearing," signed Jackie. "When we argue it's . . ." She looked at her husband questioningly. "What?"
It was suggested that maybe they argue less than they would if both of them talked. She laughed.
The Kinners met at Gallaudet where Jackie discovered the theater and decided to study drama. Joe Kinner saw her at a party where she performed the routine from the musical "Applause" that she did for the Miss Deaf America contest in 1978. (Which she won.)
"This will freak you out," she signed in one movement, as she began the story of how the courtship began.
A mutual friend invited them to a dinner party and suggested that Jackie call Joe and ask him to give her a ride. She can hold telephone conversations, but she put off doing it because she didn't want to call a stranger, even one who worked at Gallaudet and was familiar with the speech of the hearing-impaired. But when the day of the party dawned sunny and beautiful she decided to take a chance.
They were married before the year was out.
Now in her late twenties, she got the job of understudy in the national touring company of "Children of a Lesser God" in 1980, and was on the road for 18 months. She left the company for seven months, and then joined this bus-and-truck tour a few months ago. Her being away from their Arlington home is a hardship on both of them, but jobs for deaf actresses are so rare that they are both willing to make the sacrifice.
Jackie Kinner said she learned, after many rocky days, to believe in herself, and in the idea that deafness is not a handicap, but a disability. She credits her mother, a teacher at her school in New York; a hearing friend she had in junior high, and her husband with inspiring her confidence. She also credits a man at Gallaudet whom she calls only "J.J.," who gave her her "first professional job" as a public relations assistant at the school.
"He always said, reach for the highest star, and never stop," she signed. Almost anyone could understand the hand pictures for that.