As the six women begin to sing softly, Shirley Johnson's hands start moving. Their vibrant voices rise and Johnson's body sways, her feet tap the rhythm.
She breaks her wrists apart and spreads her arms as the group sings, "My screams of freedom will fill the air." She cups her ear to the lyrics, "All the sounds of struggle you hear today are echoes of the past."
As the powerful harmony cascades from the stage, Johnson mouths the words and signs vigorously, translating the song and its message.
When Sweet Honey in the Rock, born out of Washington's Black Repertory Theater eight years ago, pours forth its songs of struggle and freedom, the 34-year-old Johnson is there to interpret for the deaf members of the audience.
Black gown reaching the floor, black ribbon around her neck, Johnson stands at the edge of the semi-circle formed by the singers in their bright African clothes. From there, she choreographs the words, rhythms and sounds of a group that sings with the abandon and fervor of a gospel choir. Her athletic and artistic performance reflects the enthusiasm and spirit of the singers, whose only instruments are their voices.
The daughter of deaf parents, Johnson brings to her performance her own message of freedom--the freedom of the deaf to participate in a musical event that otherwise would be closed to them.
"Music has always been important to deaf people," Johnson said. "I learned how to sing with my hands when my mother, Thomasina Childress, who was born deaf, sang with the choir of the Shiloh Baptist Church. She sang and signed for the deaf members who call themselves the Silent Mission. She was my role model."
Johnson joined Sweet Honey in the Rock two years ago. While interpreting for a workshop at the Howard University Dental School in 1980, she met another interpreter, Ysaye Barnwell, who simultaneously sang and interpreted for the group. Barnwell wanted to concentrate on her singing. Since then, Johnson has performed at 15 concerts and often travels with the group.
Johnson's participation is largely due to the philosophy of Roadwork Inc., a D.C. women's cultural organization, which serves as a booking agent for Sweet Honey in the Rock.
"The women's music movement is probably unique in the world in its sensitivity to the special needs of the audience," said Roadwork's founder, Amy Horowitz. "We provide interpreters, wheelchair accessibility and child-care services for people who might otherwise be prevented from sharing in an event."
Johnson acknowledges what has been achieved for the deaf but believes much remains to be done. "I'd like to see emergency instruction signs in the trains. Everyone can hear the conductor except the deaf folks," she said. "Every emergency room should be equipped with a telecommunications device (TCD) through which a deaf person can place calls."
When she is not in concert, Johnson works as a medical interpreter for Deafpride Inc., a nonprofit organization working for the rights of deaf persons and their families. Deafpride is a United Black Way Agency. There are only a few medical interpreters in the U.S.
Working with Deafpride's Project Access, in cooperation with the Child Development Center at Howard University, she helps make maternal and child health services accessible to deaf women. The project assists in providing interpreters for doctor's appointments, delivery and classes in child development.
Johnson interprets in a variety of situations.
"I've interpreted at weddings, births and funerals," she says. At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she received a bachelor's degree in deaf education, Johnson was a classroom interpreter for a deaf high school senior.
"I went to every class with him, except math and gym," she said.
She went on to teach sign language to the staff of a state school for the mentally retarded in Belchertown, Mass., and has taught at the interpreter training program at Gallaudet College. She has coauthored a study of drug use among deaf youths and recently was named to the Mayor's Council on the Handicapped.
Johnson refines her performances with advice from members of the deaf audience.
"A friend suggested changing the sign for 'black people.' Formerly they were referred to (only) by two fingers rubbing the nostril. This connotes 'bad smell,' something unpleasant. I now use a combination of the sign for Africa, the thumb drawing a line across the forehead, and the sign for 'black,' " Johnson said.
She founded and is president of "Bridges," an advocacy group that focuses on the special needs of the black deaf community.
Negative attitudes toward the deaf are the most frequent obstacles that Johnson encounters in her work as interpreter and advocate.
"There is ignorance, fear and awkwardness in people's dealings with the deaf. I meet the challenge in terms of sharing information that has been denied to deaf people," Johnson said.
"I have to work hard to be positive. It's an all-day effort, but I don't dwell on the negative. I feel good when I've touched somebody's life and they've had success because of something I've done," Johnson said.
"Although my parents were both deaf, I don't feel disadvantaged. My father was president of the deaf club and my mother has always been active in the church. Before coming to Washington, she taught kindergarten at the North Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, from which she had graduated."
Johnson's two sisters are also skilled interpreters as a result of having been raised in a family where sign language was the first language.
Maxine Childress Brown, the 37-year-old wife of a lawyer and mother of three, is a community liaison officer for the City of Rochester, N.Y. Khaula Murtadha, 31, teaches and is the preschool coordinator at the Islamic School in Washington.
Johnson was married for four years and she, her sons Reginald, 17, a student at Woodson Senior High School, and Deon, 14, who attends Evans Junior High School, all live in the house that Johnson's father built in 1947 on Clay Street in Northeast.
Johnson's sons have begun to learn finger spelling and sign language and both have expressed interest in an interpreting career. Reginald, the eldest son, is also drawn to percussion instruments, music and dance.
Johnson's mother, Thomasina Childress, 67, lives with her daughter and grandsons and works as a file clerk at the East of the River Health Center on East Capitol Street.
Childress recalled, speaking in sign language, some of the frustrations experienced by the deaf 20 years ago.
"When people saw our family signing in the street or on the bus, they stared. They looked at us like we were some kind of oddity.
"Television was not close-captioned and very few cultural events were accessible to the deaf. My husband used to watch wrestling matches because they were so visual. I was involved in church functions."
For the most part, the deaf gathered at social affairs. Church fellowship was one of the few bonds between the deaf and hearing world.
Communicating in sign language is a strenuous physical activity, Johnson said. "To keep in shape I walk, jog and dance when I can. You really need to get your body into it, especially in musical situations, but it's work that I really enjoy. It's worthwhile."
In all of her activity, Johnson says, she has attained a balance between the art that she shares with Sweet Honey in the Rock and her role as a deaf rights advocate.