Plays of Our Own. 14 “Deaf Plays” You Should Know

If the average theatergoer were asked about “deaf plays,” they might think of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” or Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” both Tony-winning Broadway plays written by hearing writers that featured deaf characters – or they might cite Broadway productions by Deaf West Theatre of “Big River” and “Spring Awakening,” which featured Deaf actors in adaptations of shows originally performed by hearing actors.

But what of Teresa Deevy’s “The King of Spain’s Daughter,” a play originally produced at Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre in 1935, and one of the five by Deevy that the Mint Theater Company has revived over the past decade? There are no deaf characters in Deevy’s play, a charming if pointed proto-feminist comedy about an  independent-minded Irish country girl bullied by her father and ceaselessly wooed by a love-besotted if unexciting suitor. What makes it a deaf play is that the playwright was deaf.

“The King of Spain’s Daughter” is the first of the fourteen plays in Plays of Our Own: An Anthology of Scripts by Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Writers (Routledge, 438 pages), the first-ever collection of its kind.

In many ways, Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) is the exception in the collection: She was the most conventionally successful dramatist of the fourteen, the author of more than twenty-five plays produced on popular stages as well as many radio dramas. She is one of the few who did not feature any deaf characters in her work. Most crucially, she was the only one not fluent in American Sign Language. That some of these plays were performed for Deaf audiences in ASL —   a visual, three-dimensional language that does not have a written form – makes this collection  especially valuable, a glimpse into a world hidden in plain sight that feels like a potentially rich source of new theatrical ideas. 

 “Plays of Our Own” is edited by Willy Conley, a long-time professor of theater at Gallaudet University, who is also himself a Deaf playwright; his play about the painter Goya is one of two in the anthology about historical figures who were deaf. (The other, by Stephen Baldwin, dramatizes the life of a hero of the Texas Republic named Erastus “Deaf ” Smith, who is still celebrated in Texas; there’s actually a “Deaf Smith County” in the state.) Conley provides extensive introductions to each play and playwright, as well as some fascinating history of, and insights into, the interplay between the Deaf world and the theater world.

Here for example, is Conley’s take on the main effort to make theater accessible to the Deaf, the use of ASL interpreters for a handful of performances during a production:

“Contrary to popular belief, simply providing sign language interpreting does not create equal access for Deaf audiences. Interpreters are usually placed off to the side of the stage where they sit or stand immobile in a small spotlight. They translate the spoken text to the Deaf audience during performances created chiefly for the hearing audience. That is to say, these performances are produced with a focus on speech rather than movement.  For Deaf theater artists and audiences watching a sign-interpreted show, it is much like reading a script…”

The second play in the collection, “My Third Eye,” illustrates this difference vividly. A landmark play devised in 1971 by the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD),which had been founded four years earlier, “My Third Eye” features a scene entitled “Sideshow,” which put hearing people on display to catalogue their shortcomings, a sly reversal of the age-old attitudes of hearing people towards the deaf.  

“You and I use our eyes; hers are blank and weak,” declares the Ringmaster. “You and I use our faces; hers is frozen except around the mouth. Notice their mouths will continue to move throughout this performance. Hands limp and soft, not used much.”

A year in the making, “My Third Eye” was shaped (four years before “A Chorus Line”) by the company members sharing their personal experiences.  The first of its five scenes presents a series of autobiographical monologues, each actor telling their story  in American Sign Language (while hearing actors, who played their own characters, also voiced in English what the Deaf actors were signing – a technique used decades later in Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening.”)  This was at a time when deaf people were still widely discouraged by educators, doctors and their own families from using sign language at all. 

“My Third Eye” is one of the two plays in the collection that Conley labels “Deaf Culture Classics.” The other is “A Play of Our Own,” developed and directed by Dorothy Miles in  1973, which is influenced by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” of six years earlier: A Deaf daughter brings home her hearing boyfriend to her Deaf parents.

The production, some have argued, was a “declaration of war” against the work by  NTD, which toured to audiences that were ninety percent hearing, and used voice actors for simultaneous English interpretation. “A Play of Our Own” did not. Hearing audience members who didn’t know sign language had to guess the dialogue – putting them “in the position that deaf people normally are when watching a stage or television presentation performed by hearing persons,” as Miles wrote in a director’s note in the playbill, which reads something close to a manifesto:

“This play is the result of a Movement and of an experiment. The Movement is nationwide: a move towards acceptance of deafness and identification with the real life of a deaf person; and a move away from the imitation of hearing persons. The experiment is local; an attempt to develop a full- length play that would allow deaf adult actors to be “themselves” on stage – using their own language and their own everyday environment…”

In the half-century since those seminal works, there has been a burgeoning of original works of theater by Deaf and hard-of-hearing playwrights, as the anthology attests.  But, as Conley points out, not one of them has been produced on Broadway or in any of the regional LORTs (League of Resident Theatres) throughout the country – an exclusion that Conley asked seven of the  still-living playwrights in the anthology to write about in an Afterword. Playwright Jaye Austin Williams speculates that the period between “the NTD era” and Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God” marked  “a two-decades-long love affair with ASL-interpreted theater and Deaf audiences,” after which “the novelty wore off.”

There is evidence for a more optimistic view embedded in the fascinating story of Bruce Hlibok. One can argue that Hlibok was a Deaf playwright produced on Broadway, with only a slight stretching of the facts. He was the first Deaf actor to play a Deaf character on Broadway, performing in the 1978 Broadway musical Runaways, which was written by Elizabeth Swados. But Hlibok, then 18 years old, was given credit for the “additional text” he created (in ASL) for his character, Hubbell.

Hlibok went on to write a play on his own, “WomanTalk,” which is included in the anthology. A dark comedy about two Deaf women who plot to kill their abusive husbands, it is said to be the first play written and directed by a Deaf theater artist to be produced Off-Off Broadway.

Reviewing the 1984 play in the Village Voice,  Alisa Solomon implicitly proclaimed the value to the art form of such authentic Deaf perspective when she wrote:  “I wish Womantalk didn’t have voice interpreters sitting down- stage right, speaking the words that the actresses were signing, so that I could have delighted even more in its beautiful crystallization of theater.” 

Hlibok wrote two more plays produced Off-Off Broadway, but then tragically died of AIDS at the age of 34.

In his honor, the Hlibok family – which includes his brother Greg, the leader of the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet – set up an annual Bruce Hlibok playwriting competition. It is just one of several such  competitions to encourage the next generation of Deaf and hard-of-hearing playwrights.

List of plays in the “Plays of Our Own” anthology:

The King of Spain’s Daughter by Teresa Deevy
My Third Eye by The National Theatre of the Deaf Ensemble
A Play of Our Own by Dorothy Miles
The Ghost of Chastity Past or The Incident at Sashimi Junction by Shanny Mow
DEAF SMITH: The Great Texian Scout by Stephen C. Baldwin
WomanTalk by Bruce Hlibok
25 Cents by Aaron Weir Kelstone 
META by Patricia A. Durr
The Middle of Nowhere by Michele Maureen Verhoosky 
A Not So Quiet Nocturne by Jaye Austin Williams
Profile of a Deaf Peddler by Mike Lamitola
Goya – en la Quinta del Sordo (in the house of the deaf man) by Willy Conley
Reflections of a Black Deaf Woman by Michelle A. Banks
Lost in the Hereafter by Sabina England

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply