by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
Mixed Blood opened its Center of the Margins festival over the weekend, which features three plays that explore “the complex world of disability.” Staging these plays together thankfully avoids making any one stand for a supposedly universal experience of disability, and wards off the impression that there’s an ideal way to represent disability on stage. The festival’s first play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, is performed in American Sign Language (ASL), and features two actress who are deaf, but it doesn’t take up deafness as its subject. “Casting two deaf women in a play written for a hearing man and woman required only the most minor script changes,” writes Aditi Kapil in her director’s note, underscoring the extent to which this production is about the development of a relationship, rather than deafness.
Originally written in English by Rajiv Joseph, “Gruesome Injuries” stages a series of encounters between two friends, Dag (Nic Zapko) and Kayleen (Alexandia Wailes). Clearly in love, but unclear about what form this love will take, they share the kind of intimacy that’s rarely found, and sorely missed when its gone.
As the title suggests, their encounters revolve around physical injuries, and so take place in nurses’ offices, hospitals, and sick beds. Simple line drawings projected behind the actors evoke these scenes of injury, in which Dag and Kayleen alternatively console one another, and add to each others’ pain.
English subtitles also scroll across screen as Zapko and Wailes sign in ASL, reversing the usual linguistic hierarchy at the theater, which places spoken language at the center, and signed at the margins. While the shift to ASL may have required minimal changes in terms of content, the work of translation was clearly extensive, and represents a highly-successful collaborative process on the part of the actresses, “ASL Sign Master” Alex Zeibot, and Kapil.
I should note that my measure of success in this case is not the accuracy of the translation (as a hearing person, who doesn’t understand ASL, I’m in no position to judge), but rather is the fact that Zapko and Wailes’ performances, and their use of ASL, are the most engaging aspects of the production. Both actresses portray an impressive range of expressions, depicting these characters over a wide range of ages. Furthermore, their descriptions of injury and pain so aptly communicate Dag and Kayleen’s tempestuous relationship, that it’s hard to imagine this play in a language other than ASL.
In fact, had the play been performed in English, I honestly don’t think that I would have enjoyed it much. It’s a rather sentimental piece, and unfolds quite predictably, despite the fact that the characters’ encounters aren’t presented in chronological order. What was novel and compelling, however, was a different balance of gesture (more) and sound (less) than I’m used to as a theatergoer.
And yet, I don’t think I was the Mixed Blood’s target audience for this play, given that the company has built a practice of seeking out the specific populations represented or involved in each production. How might audience members for whom ASL is not novel have experienced the piece? Did it seem sentimental or straightforward? Was it visually compelling? Of course, this is not to suggest that there’s one possible “deaf reaction” to the play. Sure to provoke a range of responses from audience members who are deaf, as well as hearing, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a fitting choice for a festival that promotes diversity at the theater.