When Alexandria Wailes was growing up, people would stop her mother, incredulous, and ask her: “ Your deaf daughter is dancing!? How is that possible?”
She reminded Wailes of this over breakfast this week, the morning after she had traveled to New York to see her daughter dancing and acting on Broadway in the revival of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which ends its run this weekend.
Wailes’ performance incorporating American Sign Language as the Lady in Purple has been praised by critics (including me) for its virtuosity, clarity and freshness both on Broadway and three years ago in the Public Theater production.
It’s just the most recent gig for the professional dancer, actor, director, and choreographer, who won an Obie in 2020 for “sustained excellence as an artist and advocate,” and whose career on Broadway goes back two decades. Her work on stage is not the only evidence of her growing prominence. In addition to performing in Deaf West’s Broadway productions of both “Big River” and “Spring Awakening,” she worked on the creative team of both the Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God” and the “King Lear” starring Glenda Jackson, as the director of artistic sign language (DASL) — a task she took on as well for two recent movies, “A Quiet Place 2,” and “CODA,” which this year won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Her achievements seem sufficient response to her mother’s skeptical questioners, but what would she say directly to people who ask: How can a person dance if she can’t hear the music? Isn’t music integral to dance?
“Dance just requires your body and a physical space. There’s more to a body than your ears,” Wailes signs (interpreted into English), “Dance is about feeling. Musicality is not a hearing or a deaf thing. Some people can hear and don’t have a lick of rhythm. Some Deaf people who do not hear at all have amazing rhythm.”
It is one of the topics we discussed on Zoom, which is interpreted into written English/excerpted/edited/paraphrased below. and includes a six minute video of her showing the difference between artistic sign language and regular old sign language.
Something had struck me, while watching Wailes’ performance at the Booth Theater of what Shange called her “choreopoem,” which is a mixture of poetry and dance. In Wailes’ hands – and body – ASL itself seemed to combine the two art forms as well.
Jonathan Mandell: I know you’ve been both signing and dancing from an early age. When did you start to see the two as connected?
Alexandria Wailes: I started both dancing and signing before I was three years old. So my brain development, my body development, incorporated both of those. But the first time I made the conscious connection between the two was in high school. I went to Model Secondary School for the Deaf which is located on the campus of Gallaudet University. They had a fantastic performing arts program when I went there. Many of my teachers were deaf professionals – professional dancers, professional artists. They were role models. I saw performances where they incorporated sign language and dance. I started to think about how I wanted to express myself as a person and as an artist. It felt organic.
Did it feel organic because of your personality, or was there something specific about your being a native signer, something specific about ASL, that encourages performance?
It’s a little bit of both. I was intrigued by dance because I felt like an outsider growing up, even though I was in a Deaf school. I just never felt like I fit in. So dance was a way that I could express myself. It was a way to be in shape; it’s good cardio. Then I started to think about the artistic value of movement. Then I started thinking about how sign language informs who I am.
I discovered I could bring them together; I’m constantly making discoveries now.
The beauty of signing is that it can incorporate facial expressions, the non-manual aspects, physicality, role shifting. ASL storytelling can be very powerful, and there’s been a delight in combining that in this specific choreopoem.
What was it like to work with a (mostly hearing) ensemble in “for colored girls…?”
From the first day, we had ASL interpreters who were there in the room. This was a multilingual room. I say multilingual because, yes there was English and ASL, but there was also the language of dance, of movement. That’s a language in and of itself.We just immediately connected and communicated, talking about the artistic vision and how sign language lives in this collective.
It was great to have a director of artistic sign language too [Michelle A Banks.]. Sign language is such a visual language. It’s also physical, it takes up space. And so it was important for me personally, but also as an artist, to have somebody who’s on the creative side of the table because that’s somebody I could bounce thoughts off of.”
There was no sign language in the original production of “for colored girls…” Did these new productions decide to use sign language and that’s the reason why they cast you, or did they cast you and that’s why the decided to incorporate ASL, or was it more complicated than that?
I don’t know about the casting decision, but I will say that signing is a huge part of who I am. I think what’s truly beautiful and powerful about “for colored girls…” is that each individual represents a color but is bringing part of who they are as a person to the stage. As Alexandria as a person, I’m deaf, I use sign language. I code switch….
How much of you was in Lady in Purple, and how much Lady in Purple in you? Did you change her; did she change you?
All the colors are amazing. What I loved about Purple is she was just so quick to be herself. I’m more shy than Purple. Purple is loud and out there and I think that experiencing that taught me the importance of claiming the space, celebrating who you are. Being Purple was cool.
I then asked her a question about the difference between artistic sign language and regular sign language, and to give me a specific example from any show with which she was involved. Her answer would lose so much if I merely translated it into English, that I’ve turned this part of the interview into a video (about six minutes worth, voiced by interpreter Beth Staehle.) (See 4:30 for the example.)
To paraphrase: She believes there are different perspectives on this. She thinks it’s tied to the creativity, the dramaturgy – the world that is being created for the show.
For “CODA,” she sat down with Sian Heder, the film’s writer and director over a meal, and went through the script line by line. She would sign the lines in different ways to show her regional differences – just like, for hearing people, a Boston accent sounds different from a Brooklyn accent – and what different signs would look like. In this way, they were able to hone in on what they wanted.
It’s not just the language. A DASL (shorthand for director of artistic sign language) looks at how the furniture is set up in the house – such as where the TV goes. Deaf people would never set up a living room with their back is to the door and the TV reflects all the lights from the windows, blinding them.
Using artistic sign language for a movie or for theater allows more space to be able to explore the possibilities
At about 4.30 in the video, she gives a specific example from “for colored girls” which she takes from the monologue “Sechita,” that she performed in sign while Lady in Orange (Amara Granderson) voiced it.
This is taken from the poetic sentence: “once there were quadroon balls/ elegance in st.louis/ laced mulattoes/ gamblin down the mississippi/ to memphis/.”
She explains that someone translating the English word “Mississippi,” into ASL, would use the sign for “river” (since they are talking about the Mississippi River)
But they looked at the signs in the full context – they’re on a paddleboat, there’s gambling, so her hands while signing “river” take the cylindrical shape of the cylindrical engine that powers a Mississippi paddleboat.
I asked whether the increasingly visibility of Deaf performers, the wider use of ASL, and the success of “CODA” indicate that there are fewer misconceptions about, and more opporutnieis, for Deaf people in the arts.
On some days it is less. And some days it’s actually a lot more. I think social media has helped, and I do see that people are doing their own work. But at the same time, there is still some egregious unconscious bias.
Because CODA received so much attention, people might find themselves more hopeful. But there’s more out there than just CODA, and how many people know about them?
From a Deaf person’s experience, we have our own community we have our own language. But within that space, there are so many different intersectionalities that exist, which haven’t been shared. hopefully there will be more stories told about other Deaf experiences and allow for other Deaf representation to take place.”
“for colored girls…’ is ending its run after just two months (the original Broadway run in the 1970s was some two years), but Wailes believes that many of the people who attended had an experience they’ve never had before:
I think what people take away from our production is a connection, understanding, seeing ASL in a way they’ve never seen before. Experiencing the range of diversity.
We all have that urge to connect as humans. And the human connection requires acknowledging people for who they are and seeing how they negotiate the world. If you can create a space that is available for people to do so, I think you’ll be amazed with how much you learn from those interactions.