As she menacingly rose from her rocking chair, wooden staff clutched and rifle slung over her shoulder, senior Cayla Kamarow—playing the titular character of Emerson Stage’s Mother Hicks—addressed the townspeople standing outside her house.
“You want a witch? Then witch I’ll be. When you look, you see what you want to see,” Kamarow said.
As her voice intensified, so did the motions and expressions of alumna Olivia Moriarty, who was interpreting the dialogue in American Sign Language.
“It’s a spell,” an onlooker exclaimed, and Moriarty signed.
“Get out of here before I lock your jaws,” threatened Kamarow, with a vocal timbre as dark as Moriarty’s gestural tone, “and turn your blood to poison.”
This oral and optical interchange is intrinsic to Mother Hicks—a play set in the Great Depression about a group of outcasts coming together and learning to appreciate their differences—in which all lines are delivered in spoken English and ASL. Mother Hicks will be Emerson’s first play interpreted in sign language, according to its stage manager, senior Sean Swords.
In Emerson Stage’s upcoming production, set to debut Feb. 26, the central character, Tuc, who is deaf, is portrayed by local actor Elbert Joseph, 34. Joseph, who is also deaf, signs throughout the show, and various characters provide spoken interpretations.
Conversely, three current and former Emerson students sign the all-vocal parts of the show for deaf audience members. Two screens on either side of the Paramount Center mainstage will also provide closed captions.
“It’s rewarding and inspirational and remarkable,” said Komarow, a performing arts major. “There’s so much I didn’t know [about deaf culture], and I feel like an idiot for not knowing.”
Joseph said he had previously worked with the director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, on Mother Hicks seven years ago. This time, Sandberg-Zakian, a local freelance director, said she wanted to stage not only Mother Hicks, but also its two subsequent plays, which make up a series called The Ware Trilogy.
A committee at Emerson decided to hire Sandberg-Zakian; she declined to comment on how much she is being paid, but Swords said it is not unusual for Emerson to hire outside directors and designers for productions.
The Wheelock Family Theater and Central Square Theater are hosting the two subsequent plays, The Taste of Sunrise and The Edge of Peace.
For the three interpreters, Mother Hicks is their first experience signing for a play. Though they said they have all taken between two and four semesters of ASL classes at Emerson, they said this theatrical work has brought distinct rehearsal challenges.
Interpreting in ASL is more complex than simply signing the literal equivalents of English words. Elbert and the interpreters use bodily motions and facial expressions to convey emotion and mood.
“The way that [Elbert] communicates is so different in that it’s all physical, and it has to be,” said sophomore Emily Elmore, who plays Girl, one of the lead roles.
Junior Emma Stephenson is interpreting solely for Elmore—because Girl is a prominent role—while Moriarty and senior Chelsea Glasner are interpreting for a multitude of characters. Due to the limited space on stage, every character couldn’t get an dedicated interpreter, Stephenson said.
In the play, Mother Hicks, Tuc, and Girl are drawn together by their status as pariahs—Tuc because he’s deaf, Mother Hicks because she is seen as a witch, and Girl because she doesn’t know her parents.
The rehearsal process for the interpreters was markedly different than that for the actors, according to Stephenson. While the actors rehearsed their lines, the interpreters were in a separate room, learning the detailed ASL translations of the dialogue.
Two weeks before the show, the interpreters and actors began rehearsing scenes in tandem.
Because there are more actors than interpreters, Glasner said she has to sign for two characters who are speaking to one another in some scenes. She said she does this by turning slightly when the other character begins speaking.
“It’s like a technical thing, almost like an ASL grammar,” said Glasner.
Interpreters also modify their delivery to accommodate the pacing and voice of the actors.
“It’s been difficult, because as the interpreters, we can’t ask the actors to change what they’re doing, because we’re there to service them and then to service the audience,” said Glasner.
Despite having to defer to the actors, she said the interpreters have communicated with the actors about how they are portraying their characters, so they can take on some of the character. She compared signing the play to a voice actor reading a book on tape.
There will be live music performed intermittently throughout the play on a mix of makeshift instruments like buckets and jars, and also traditional ones like the banjo, accordion, piano, guitar, and violin.
Moriarty acknowledged that the music may be lost, to a certain degree, on the deaf audience members. But she said some deaf people may be able to hear the percussion sounds and even feel their vibrations. The musicians also move while playing, which she said may at least allow deaf audiences to see the rhythm.
Joseph, who plays Tuc, said through an interpreter that working with Emerson students who had never collaborated with a deaf actor has required patience.
He said, for example, he has been teaching them appropriate ways to interact with deaf people. After the play is over, he said he hopes that the Emerson participants can go out into the community and teach others about deaf people.
“It’s been really surreal,” said Joseph. “It just feels magical for me—it’s very inspiring.”
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