The world-premiere play “Sound” explores the controversy over cochlear implants for the deaf.
To hear? To speak? To sign? Those are the questions.
Deaf children in America are eligible for a procedure that can significantly expand their ability to hear. It is a cochlear implant, and rather than amplify sounds like hearing aids do, it works by directly stimulating the auditory nerve in the brain.
By 2012, about 96,000 adults and children in the U.S. alone had undergone the procedure.
By Don Nguyen. Through Oct. 4 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $25-$30 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Yet while many have hailed it as a breakthrough that not only can turn up the volume but also help deaf children develop speech, not everyone is cheering.
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“There are a lot of emotional feelings about CIs (cochlear implants) in the deaf community,” explained Howie Seago, a deaf Tacoma-bred theater artist and co-director of the new play “Sound,” which debuts this week at ACT Theatre.
“Many deaf people feel that the doctors and other ‘professionals’ in the field of deafness consider us ‘defective’ and need to be fixed,” Seago commented by email.
“They stress this ad nauseam to the parents and do not fully educate them as to the range of communications options available. They almost always leave out the benefits of using sign language with their deaf child.”
The conflict over whether children in particular need the device intrigued Seago’s co-director, Desdemona Chiang, when she read an early draft of hearing playwright Don Nguyen’s drama, “Sound.” It portrays the heated dispute between a deaf father and his non-deaf ex-wife over whether to try to restore their daughter’s hearing with CIs.
A parallel plot depicts inventor and educator Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to create the first hearing aid, and his controversial promotion of “oralism” (teaching the deaf to speak) as opposed to sign language. He believed if the deaf socialized and communicated too much with one another, they could produce the “great calamity” of a “defective” race. (Most deaf unions actually produce hearing children.)
Chiang found “Sound” intriguing because “it featured a deaf protagonist, had signing, was discussing a hot-button issue … and had a beautiful ending where the deaf father speaks to his daughter and they reconcile their relationship.”
Before committing to produce the script with the local troupe Azeotrope, which Chiang (an award-winning director and part-time Seattleite) co-founded, she asked Seago to read it first. “Howie told me — in no uncertain terms — that the play was really problematic. It made a lot of incorrect assumptions about deafness, privileged speech over signing, and while it presented Bell as a flawed person, it at no point acknowledges how the deaf truly feel about him.”
Nguyen was open to the criticism. “Don has made drastic rewrites and improvements to the script,” according to Chiang. “He flew to Seattle to be with us in rehearsal … and has [helped us] negotiate ASL [American Sign Language] translations and story lines.”
The cast for “Sound” features three deaf and five hearing actors. Chiang studied ASL over the past year and says “everyone signs in rehearsals — or tries their hardest.”
“Sound” is likely, given its internal debates, to elicit strong reactions in the bilingual audience Azeotrope hopes to attract. “My hope is to dispel myths that many hearing people, including myself, have about deafness,” Chiang stated. “I don’t think this play is anti-CI or anti-oralist. It’s a pro-signing play. You can hear and still sign — they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Seago, a National Theatre of the Deaf alum who has worked frequently at Seattle Children’s Theatre and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, declared implants work for some deaf recipients, but they’re not “the end-all and be-all that doctors and audiologists say they are.” (He has no plans to have CIs himself.)
The play “Sound,” he hopes, will spur “a greater awareness of deaf culture and how we wish to communicate,” and catalyze more bilingual collaborations by deaf and hearing theater artists.