Memorizing lines is tough enough already, but memorizing them in two languages, one of which is relatively new to you, well, that’s a real challenge.
But the student cast of Eisenhower High School’s fall play, “Children of a Lesser God,” actually pull it off pretty well. It helps that they’re dedicated to the message of the play, a romantic drama that unflinchingly offers perspective of the deaf and deals with complicated issues surrounding deaf cultural identity in a hearing world.
“I’m hoping people will begin to see that, while there are obvious differences, there are just as many similarities between the two worlds,” says Izzy Krainick, the student-actress who plays Sarah, the deaf lead of the play. “We’re not so different after all.”
Ike drama director Janey Peterson and the school’s American Sign Language teacher, Lori England, had talked about staging the play since last year. But neither was sure if the students could actually make it work. Some of England’s students had acted a little, and some of Peterson’s knew a little ASL, but most of them would have to learn one or the other.
“I just kept on saying, ‘Do you think it’s feasible that we do that?’” Peterson said during a break from rehearsal last week. “And finally we had to make a decision, because it was August. And I said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
The reason it’s possible at all for Ike to produce “Children of a Lesser God” is that England’s ASL program has become incredibly popular among students. She started teaching ASL at Ike in 2004 with nine students. Now as many as 200 per year take the classes. Students sign to each other all over school, all throughout the day, to the point where other teachers have to stop them from having across-the-room sign language conversations during class. So there’s a baseline familiarity with the language among a lot of Ike students.
For instance, Pablo Martinez-Franz, who plays male lead James Leeds, came into the play able to sign reasonably well. His challenge had more to do with the acting part; he’s never been on stage before.
“I tried out kind of expecting a side role,” Martinez-Franz says.
His role requires the heaviest lifting, because he has to know virtually all of the lines in both English, sign language or both. He spends most of the play speaking, signing or translating others’ signing as his character grows more stubborn and angry. He’s been working for hours each day since school started, learning new sign vocabulary and learning to act at the same time.
“You could say I started at ground zero,” he says. “I would never have used some of the words they use in this role. ... And I really have to be a completely different person in this play. I’m not an angry person, so it’s really hard to switch into that mode. It’s really a big change for me.”
His challenge reflects that of the production as a whole: competently communicating in two languages simultaneously while also creating a play that is dramatically up to the standards of Ike’s oft-lauded theater department. “Children of a Lesser God,” after all, is not just some showcase of sign language; it’s an emotionally complex story. Judging by the rehearsal performance, the cast is capable.
“When we first started, I was like, ‘Oh my god, why did we do this?’” Peterson says. “And then you started to see these moments when you’d watch them and think, ‘They really are getting it.’”
Krainick and Martinez-Franz, in particular, give compelling performances even without taking into account the added degree of difficulty. Krainick, whose role is essentially nonverbal, nevertheless conveys all the necessary emotion, a trick made all the more noteworthy by the fact that she was an understudy who just took over the role last week. She’s perhaps the most accomplished ASL student in the play, otherwise it might have been impossible.
“It’s a challenge, learning an entire script in a week,” Krainick says. “And it’s a dual-language play. Any dual-language play is going to have a higher level of difficulty.”
She learned the lines in English first, she says, then translated them to ASL, using body language beyond both languages to sell much of her character’s emotion. Her performance is such that an audience will be able to understand what she’s signing even before the Leeds character translates it. That’s important, because presumably most of the audience won’t know sign language.
That fact, however, does not let the actors off the hook with regard to getting the signing right. The local deaf community has been helpful and supportive as rehearsals have progressed, England says, and many of its members plan on attending.
“That’s scary and exciting at the same time,” she says.
But, England says, the students have met the challenges so far. They realize there’s an important message in the play, and just participating in it has given them new insight.
“My character is extremely anti-hearing,” says Trayvon Reames, who plays deaf-rights advocate Orin. “So it’s given me the perspective that there’s problems on both sides that we all have to deal with.”
That’s the lesson the cast hopes the audience leaves with, says Chelsey Sheppard, a White Swan High School student and guest in the Ike drama production who plays Sarah’s mother.
“Regardless of the language — or how you speak, or how you hear, whether it’s with your eyes or your ears — we’re all communicating.”
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.