The Magic of Silence - A Review of Broadway's Children Of A Lesser God
Take a moment and turn off your music, TV, and the volume on your phone or computer. Sit in that silence. What do you hear? What do you feel? Breathe.
To a hearing person the idea of being deaf can be terrifying, to never hear music again, the voice of a loved one, or the birds in spring. It can feel like a loss, and something that needs to be corrected. Many hearing people don’t understand the deaf, and, therefore, well intentioned or not, consider them disabled, misdiagnose them as retarded, look at them as not full humans, and/or want to fix them. The deaf community is tight-knit, and often, out of fear of being judged, will avoid hearing people.
This is the topic Children Of A Lesser God tackles. It takes the audience through an emotional roller coaster as we follow the relationship of Sarah Norman and James Leeds. Sarah is the beautiful, but hard headed, deaf maid, who works and attends the local school, which “helps” the deaf and hard of hearing, by trying to teach them how to read lips and speak. She is played by the spectacular deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. James is the playful, somewhat inappropriate, thinks he knows what is best, new hearing speech therapist at the school, who can sign, impressively played by Joshua Jackson.
We watch as the two try to navigate between their two worlds, the one of hearing and the one of silence, as they attempt to understand each other, but also not lose themselves along the way. Sometimes the viewer yearns for everything else to just disappear and let them be alone together in their love, but these moments are fleeting for the couple.
As one would hope, Children Of A Lesser God is made available to the deaf community, as much of the the play is in sign as it is spoken. James helps by interpreting, as he often repeats back what the deaf actors are signing. When there is only speaking, there is closed captioning displayed conveniently above the stage. One of my deaf friends told me this is much easier than having an interpreter present, as you can still take everything in as your read what is being spoken. Side note, if you do know how to sign, there are a few gems in there that are not interpreted, but even if you don’t you will easily be able to follow along and enjoy everything that is wonderful about Children Of A Lesser God.
One does not see many deaf actors on stage, TV, or in the movies. Therefore, it is very refreshing to have three deaf actors, almost half the cast, on stage. On top of that, every single character in the performance does a little sign. This is a huge deal to the deaf community. Every deaf person I know is very proud that they are being represented on Broadway, and have made an effort to see the performance at least once.
I really have to give my hats off to Joshua Jackson who, in about a year, learned ESL (English Sign Language) for his role. ESL is an older version of ASL (American Sign Language), which is more commonly used now, but ESL would have been common during the 1970s, which is when this play takes place. To learn ESL in a year is not an easy task, and to make things harder, he has to speak and sign at the same time. As a person who knows ASL can attest, this makes both signing and speaking twice as challenging! Yet, he pulls it off flawlessly!
I also have to really give a lot of credit to leading lady, Lauren Ridloff, who was discovered because she was tutoring the director, Kelly Leon, in sign. She was never an actress, but rather an ex-kindergarten teacher and mom of two deaf boys. However, boy does she get real on stage. Since Kelly Leon had yet to cast the female lead, he asked Lauren to step in for a dry run. Let’s just say, she had the audience in tears, and after that, there was no question who the lead female would be.
Children Of A Lesser God opens a window to the world of being deaf to many people.
In the 1970s, it was common for doctors and society to try to force deaf children to get Cochlear Implants (which often didn't do enough to justify the operations) to improve their hearing, and to try to assimilate the children by teaching them how to lip read and speak. They would often do this by encouraging the parents to not learn sign language, making the children feel very isolated.
Can you imagine not being able to speak the same language as your family? Have you ever tried to lip read something someone has said across the room? When I was little, I used to pretend I was a spy and would try to understand conversations I couldn't hear by lip reading. I can tell you that I got most of it wrong. On top of that, it is very tiring. Now, try doing that all the time, and add in being forced to use a voice that you know, due to the reactions of the people around you, sounds different to others. One can understand why the deaf community keeps to themselves, where they feel safe and can easily express themselves.
However, things are improving for the deaf community! Doctors understand that it is better to have the family learn ASL then to try to do surgery, or force lip reading and speaking on a child. It is becoming increasingly more common for parents to teach their hearing children sign, as it is learned faster for babies than spoken words and helps with development. Deaf actors are being seen more and more, as the we wake up to the beautiful deaf world.
It is important for the audience to see how the deaf community has been treated, ignored, and tried to be remade into hearing people, because this is how we learn and change. However, the most important message from the performance is that being deaf is not a defect. Being deaf opens a person up to their own form of music, having vision that is more attuned to the little details, and one of the most beautiful sensitive languages one can experience.
Go see Children Of A Lesser God before it’s final performance on May 27th. It will make you laugh, cry, learn, and love.