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Signing on the Mississippi

2 minute read
Richard Zoglin

The actor playing Huck Finn is deaf. He uses sign language for all his dialogue–and his songs too–while another actor, perched at the edge of the stage, supplies his voice. His drunken Pap is actually two scraggly, bearded actors, one hearing and one deaf, who play off each other in clever ways (when one takes a swig from a jug of moonshine, the other wipes his mouth). The rest of the cast of Big River, a Broadway revival of the 1985 Tony-winning musical based on Mark Twain’s novel, is a mix of deaf and hearing actors–the most ambitious attempt yet to bring deaf actors into a mainstream Broadway show that isn’t (like Children of a Lesser God) about deafness.

It’s a production of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based company that staged the show to acclaim there last year and plans to take it on a world tour after its Broadway run. The production “required a whole new vocabulary for me,” says director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun. Hearing actors provide surreptitious cues to the deaf ones–a wink or a nudge, worked naturally into the action–to signal when the music starts. The costume designers had to avoid sleeve cuffs or loud patterns that might distract from the signing. The use of props required special attention, since both hands must always be free. “In solving those problems,” says Calhoun, “I think we’ve created an original art form.” Indeed, the synchronized signing in the chorus numbers becomes a striking, original form of choreography, and the use of multiple actors in some parts gives the show a stylized universality. Near the end of one song, Waitin’ for the Light to Shine, the orchestra suddenly stops for a few bars as the actors continue signing–a jab of silence that gives the hearing audience a chilling frisson in a rare show that can truly be called groundbreaking. –By Richard Zoglin. Reported by Molly Worthen

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