“Visible Language”: A Bilingual Musical for Deaf and Hearing Audiences

By Hallie Golden

In Mary Resing’s musical, Visible Language, when a deaf character makes a joke about learning to “curse out” his roommate, it’s likely not everyone in the audience will be laughing. Not because it isn’t funny, but because the line will only be presented in American Sign Language (ASL).

Visible Language, set to have its world premiere at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre on October 21, is the culmination of an idea Resing had five years ago to create a new kind of bilingual production. She had seen plenty of plays involving both deaf and hearing actors that opted for a simple, linear translation between ASL and English. This work, on the other hand, features “two slightly different storylines—one that the deaf audience will get, and one that the hearing audience will get,” she says. The aforementioned joke made by the deaf character will only be understood by the audience members versed in ASL; at other points in the play, the reverse will be true, so that when a hearing character speaks, the lines will not be interpreted into ASL.

“The idea was that very often in our culture, deaf people are left out of a joke when hearing people talk around them. In this case the roles were reversed,” says the show’s director, WSC Avant Bard’s Tom Prewitt. (The show is a co-production between the company and the university’s theater and dance program.) When there is interpretation, Resing wanted it to be for a reason that relates to the storyline. The result is a play that is not only a unique take on bilingual theater, but that also lets hearing audiences experience the kind of language barrier the deaf community deals with regularly from living among the hearing.

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