Her body speaks. It is eloquent. Watch. Listen. She is talking to you.
She tucks her thumbs under imaginary suspenders. Her shoulders shimmy and shake. Her head wags.
She is making the sign for Hollywood.
Terrylene Theriot is an actress, a dancer, and a playwright. She is also 18 years old and profoundly deaf. Theater is more than an ambition. It is the way she communicates. It is a necessity.
"Hollywood," she says.
She is speaking through her drama teacher, Tim McCarty, who provides the English translation for her signs.
"Hollywood is wow! It's famous people. It's many, many stars. This is the sign for Hollywood because it's part vacation and part bragging. You put your thumbs under your suspenders, like you're sitting on the porch with nothing to do. Your shoulders shake because you're strutting. You shake your head for cockiness."
She has been thinking a lot about Hollywood recently. Two weeks ago, she was interviewed by Gretchen Rennell, the casting director for "Children of a Lesser God," which is scheduled to begin shooting in May. It is the story of a man and a woman, James and Sarah. One hears, the other doesn't.
Sarah is in her 20s, older than Theriot. But like Sarah, Theriot is intimately acquainted with the anger of isolation. Like Sarah, she is adamant about her independence. Like Sarah, she is in love with a man who hears. Unlike Sarah, who refuses to speak, who refuses to read lips, Theriot uses all the tools at her command -- speech, lip-reading, American Sign Language (ASL), Pidgin Sign English (PSE), fingerspelling -- to make herself understood.
To be understood is to exist.
"She seemed very independent, very fearless," Rennell said. "She has a mind of her own. She seemed to have a lot of the characteristics of Sarah. She reminds me of Jennifer Beals. My only concern is her age."
Terrylene Theriot and her boyfriend, Bob Mulkern, are sitting in the drama workshop at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, a federally funded high school on the campus of Gallaudet College. They are rehearsing a scene from the movie. Rennell has asked for videotapes to show to the producer and director.
Mulkern is a photographer, not an actor. For a day, the part is his. He is James, the speech teacher who falls in love with Sarah, whose help she spurns. He asks her out to an Italian restaurant. She asks him to dance. The workshop is transformed. Theriot and Mulkern circle the floor self-consciously.
"He's worried about people watching us sign," Theriot says, explaining. "He holds me close but I shove him away because I want to talk and dance. That's the same as me. I don't like to hide things. I like to show it. I'm proud of being deaf."
Her animation is hypnotic. In her presence, you don't notice the silence. She has a lot in common with Sarah. "Her feelings about deafness, yes," she says. "Her feelings about love, that's different. She doesn't want his help. I do want Bob's help. I always liked hearing boys."
A loud foghorn noise reverberates through the building, interrupting. It is the signal that classes have ended. The students may not hear it but they feel it. Theriot sits with her legs curled beneath her, trying to look comfortable in one of those uncomfortable school-issue chairs. She has a hard time sitting still.
She divides her time between school and Mulkern's apartment in Adams Morgan, she says. He wants to go to film school. They dream of going to Hollywood together after she graduates this spring.
"I have a lot of dreams," he says. "And they all come true. I had a dream when I was in 11th grade. I had a job as a grocery bagger. In the dream, there was a dance at the grocery store. I was with a girl. The one thing I remember was we couldn't speak to each other. We met at a dance where I was working. It wasn't a grocery store but I was giving out Cokes. We hit it off from the start. No questions asked."
They met at a dance in upstate New York a year and a half ago. Was it love at first sight? She wrinkles her nose, the ASL sign for yes, and folds her arms across her heart. That sign requires no explanation.
"I knew nothing," Mulkern says. "No sign language at all. The next week, we went to an Army-Lehigh football game. Everything was paper, paper back and forth. I said, 'This has to stop.' She signed to me and I learned through her signs."
She was an angry young woman at the time. This is not uncommon in teen-agers. She had other emotional burdens. She had never known her father. Her parents split up before she was born. Once, she tried to call him on the TTY (a Teletype device for the deaf). He showed no interest in knowing his daughter. She says she will give him one more chance: "I'll invite him to my graduation."
Her deafness is congenital, shared by all the members of her family except two uncles and one brother. She can hear white noise, undifferentiated sound -- the rhythms of the Rolling Stones but not Mick Jagger's voice. Once her drama class went to the zoo to study birds for a play they were producing. She heard a strange squawking sound. "I said, 'I can't stand it! What's that noise?' " she says. "The director said, 'That's a bird.' It wasn't a pretty bird. I want to hear birds singing."
Sometimes she prefers the silence. She leaves her hearing aid off in the mornings. "The week we met, we were driving around and the Frankie Valli song 'I Love You Baby' came on the radio," Mulkern says. "I thought about high school, how this music is affecting my mood, my perceptions. I said, 'You don't have that.' She said, 'Look at the wind on my face. The wind on my face is my music. I'll know the wind the way you will never know the wind.' "
Growing up in Chicago and then Texas, she learned to hate the telephone, movies, television, instruments of the hearing world that excluded her. She tried to talk and found that hearing people recoiled from her, as if her disability was catching. In school, she tried to go out for theater, for dance. She needed to create, to make contact. "I tried out," she says. "What part did they give me? I was a dog."
She rises out of her chair, whimpering like a sick puppy.
"You can see she's a talented kid," McCarty says. "You can imagine a person who has been denied that opportunity for 14 years, the opportunity to express yourself. That could build up a lot of anger."
When she was 15, she inherited a friend's pen pal, an inmate in a Texas jail. She told him about her loneliness and her anger. She thought perhaps he would understand. No one else did. "I was angry inside," she says. "But I had no one to tell. So I decided to tell him. No one can listen to me. I thought maybe he would understand because he was staying in one cell. So I thought I'd write. I shared my anger and my dreams."
She told him she believed in a better world. In some inchoate way, she knew that if she could reach him, make him believe that he was not alone, then she too would no longer be alone. She wrote and wrote and wrote. "I asked him to imagine what the world would look like if we had happiness all around us," she says. "I told him, 'I know I can't hear but I know I can hear people laugh. I know I'm deaf but if many, many people laugh, if the world is full of laughter I can hear that.'"
A reply came. He asked about her deafness, about her loneliness. He told her about the disintegration of his marriage. He said her dreams of a better world were silly. He rejected her innocence.
"I will have to disagree with you on one thing," he wrote. "You speak of wishing there was only peace in the world. Well, I think if that were the fact then we would live in a very dull world, there would be no ambition, no drive, no motivation and it would be a completely dull existence."
She was enraged. Why? Why? She asked. Why did this have to be?
She leans forward, her fingers dancing, flying. The slapping of her hands provides the emphasis and the syncopation. Her prisoner had made her realize she had a choice. He had laid it out in the starkest possible terms. Either she could remain a prisoner of her bitterness or get on with it. He had made his choice. It would not be hers.
The same year she arrived at the Model Secondary School. Her brother had told her about it, and she knew she had to go. Now, three years later, with triumphs to talk about here in the drama workshop, she says: "I choose to see a beautiful world."
The correspondence provided the basis for a play she wrote called "Imagine." After she won the Integrated Young Playwrights Competition of the National Committee -- Arts for the Handicapped, a reporter asked if it was based on John Lennon's song. She had never heard of it. She looked up the words. "He's right," she says. "He's not the only one. I'm a dreamer, too."
She wrote the play in American Sign Language. McCarty helped translate it into English idioms. She doesn't know any slang. She has to have phrases like "bag lady" explained to her.
"My play is about isolation," she says. "Just because I'm deaf doesn't mean I'm isolated. Anyone can have that. Some hearing people talk all day and go home and say, 'No one understands me.' Talk is not necessarily communication. People have different kinds of isolation."
First prize was seeing the play performed last May at the Kennedy Center. George Segal starred as the prisoner. Everyone told her he was a big star. She didn't know who he was.
At rehearsal, the night before the performance, he made a few suggestions. "He tried to change some of the ideas of the movement," she says. "He said, 'Why not just have the characters sit and have no blocking?' I said, 'No. Follow me. I want you to think of my deaf audience first. Deaf people will fall asleep.' What he was missing was the expression of the body. He thought the voice would do everything. He added a lot more acting. He made me happy."
Jean Kennedy Smith, national chairman of the Very Special Arts Festival, sat with Theriot during the performance. "She was rather overwhelmed," Smith said. "I remember her crying at the end. A chance to create is important to everyone but it is particularly important to them. Most handicapped children are dependent on people for one thing or another. In the long run, this is very debilitating. In the arts, they can make choices. They can pick the color. They can interpret the role. She created the play. The fact that she could do it is an independence that children with handicaps need very badly."
The play may be produced this summer at the Royal Court Young People's Theatre in London as part of a cultural exchange. Negotiations have run into trouble over the issue of optimism. "The London people are saying it's too hopeful, too innocent," Theriot says. "That's their problem." In any case, Theriot will go to England this summer as part of the cast of the school's production of "Godspell."
Hope creates a dilemma. McCarty says Theriot is different from most of his students, who all too readily accept the lowered expectations of the hearing world. The problem is: for many of them the opportunity to create, to act, to perform, will never equal the expectations engendered by their education.
"Many of my graduates come back and say, 'What can I do? I miss it.' " McCarty says. "They're so comfortable, so natural in our environment. Then they leave our school and that's the last time in their lives they will feel that comfortable unless they come back and teach in a deaf institution."
He worries that he is setting them up for failure. He wants more than that for them. He wants more than that for Terrylene Theriot. "I see Terrylene as the future of deaf people," he says. "What she and others like her do in the next 10 years will affect the lives of all deaf people. She could go ahead and perform for small community groups, the National Theatre for the Deaf and have an impact. But I see her potential impact to be much louder. She's a crossover. I think she's that good."
Writing, acting, dancing, creating. These defused her anger. These made her brave. "Before, I was really angry at hearing people," she says. "I'm not angry anymore."
Her voice punctures the silence. "I now accept people for what they are," she says, and she says it aloud.
For the first time in three hours, she has chosen to speak.
"Did I use my voice?" she says. "Sometimes I can't control my feelings inside. Maybe I wanted to make an impression. I don't know."
She wants very much to be accepted as a person, not a deaf person. As an actress, not a deaf actress. Now, she waits nervously to find out whether Hollywood will beckon.
"She is very pretty," Rennell says after seeing the tapes. "She certainly has a lot of presence on film. But she may be too immature for the role."
No matter what happens, Theriot will not be deterred.
"I'll go to California," she says. "I know what people will say, what I will face. I'll be put down, the way I was when I grew up. I'll face it again. I'll do it differently this time. I won't let them say no to me."
She refuses to hear it.