Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in 'Children of a Lesser God.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
The challenges that all of us must confront in order to achieve meaningful human connection is the central theme of Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God.” How can we overcome the obstacles that divide us in order to understand one another? “Start listening. Stop judging,” read the T-shirts for sale in the lobby of Studio 54, in case we miss the point. Unfortunately the current Broadway revival, which is the first major New York production since this play won the Tony in 1980, fails to either illuminate that quest for connection or compellingly engage us in its telling.…

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  1. “Not So Shitty Airplane Coffee” A Deaf attendee’s review of COALG

    Whenever there’s a conference I’m attending, I’d take every opportunity to check out any local Deaf (or any minority group which I also identified with) event in wherever I’m visiting. Thanks to AERA conference in NYC, a couple of my colleagues and I took the advantage to watch “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway at Studio 54 last Saturday. We were utterly ecstatic to witness this play to go on Broadway for the first time with a Deaf Woman-of-Color (after the first Broadway show in 1980) as the star. Lauren Ridloff plays the main character, Sarah Norman, who’s a Deaf non-speaking janitor. Most importantly, this was Ridloff’s debut to go on a Broadway stage while playing opposite to Joshua Jackson as James Leed, a new speech therapist. After corresponding with several other Deaf attendees, I feel compelled to write this since there are still not enough Deaf reviewers and being outside of the entertainment business, my career isn’t at risk. We have already read some articles–including this one–all written by hearing non-signers who raved about Ridloff’s aesthetically arm-flowing (or flapping) movements but gave begrudgingly criticism on Jackson or as once referred on the stage as Mr. “Lazy” (similar to his namesign). So I’d like to offer my Deaf and ASL-fluent signer’s perspective, and not only that but also a review coming from a light-skinned female African-American.

    Currently on my way back home to Long Beach, this non-distracting flight is allowing me to digest with everything from that play, with free bottomless airplane coffee. Presented with a dilemma on framing this review either as supportive for this successful show, starring with two Black (one biracial) Deaf female actresses, or as brutally honest in order to encourage us all to learn from this lesson, I decide to take the tougher path with the latter. Take notes y’all, this gonna be my last time to watch this outdated storyline. The director, Kenny Leon, a Black hearing male non-fluent signer, did a terrific job maintaining this performance faithfully to the original script, written by Mark Medoff, a hearing White playwright in 1979. I could sense the (awkward) racial tension that was tempted and teased to release and shift this storyline elsewhere but unfortunately for me, it didn’t. However, I still need to express my “teeth-grinding” disappointment watching the amateurish quality of acting. Oftentimes, I resisted from doing #facepalm since I needed my (reddened) eyes to watch every signed line, despite some signs were squashed and overlapped among their scripted lines.

    First of all, my group purchased our tickets several months ago before the theater decided to offer ASL-interpreted nights. We arrived and found out that it was same schedule as one of their ASL nights (with Deaf attendees sitting marginalized on the left side of the audience) while we sat right in the middle of the orchestra. We had the best view seeing both of Ridloff’s and Jackson’s signed lines and the captions, placed on the top, above the stage. We still had to look far up and sympathize with those who sat in the front rows (or the Deaf section) to bend their heads far back to read the captions! Nonetheless this bimodal (both signed and textual communication) accessibility was truly luxury for us all, different signers (various ASL competencies) wanting to know what exactly has been spoken too. Hope this trend will pick up with future plays! While we could see the signings well, the attendees in the Deaf section, on the other hand, had reported that some signed lines weren’t visible to them. How’s that for irony when this show is intended to empower the Deaf people? When we couldn’t understand Jackson’s clumsy signs, we’d peek over to the interps on the far left of our vision—or look upward. So it was a large triangular point of views that involved lots of neck rotations, thanks to this overloaded accessibility!

    Secondly, to my understanding, Jackson is limited on articulating lines between himself and Sarah, which my hearing friend explained sounding as an “announcer’s voice”. Pitifully, Sarah couldn’t be expressed in voice with various intonations while her signs engaged with so much emotions and yet expressed in 150-mph speed of signing. Again, from a Deaf signer’s perspective, I must add to that bemoaning response to how unarticulated other actors were. From an insider’s information, Ridloff’s signed lines were rehearsed with a stopwatch. Eh??? Do you do that with speech? Being married with a fashionista of ‘70’s wardrobe myself, I pay an extra attention to this theme of outfits. Someone needs to explain to the wardrobe designer to dress the signers in high contrasting colors (light to dark solid colors) to make the signs more visible and articulated. Oftentimes, Ridloff’s signs are lost in so much visually noise in her clothing. This wouldn’t work with speech overlapping any unnecessary background noise. Finally about registry of sign language, I’m fairly impressed with Jackson’s mostly intelligible signing skills. Although his registry is much closer to ASL, less signing exact English (SEE) which dissociated from his supposedly character as a speech therapist. If you ask any Deaf person for any (traumatic) memory of going speech therapy, barely would anyone claim having a fully ASL-fluent speech therapist! And is this how ASL was signed in late-70’s/early-80’s? It felt too modernized without any historical word/sign used. Yet all of these decisions were made by the language consultant of this play. *shrugs*

    Thirdly, back to the “awkward” racial tension, how can I, as a Black woman, am supposed to take this well while a White male signer is voicing and interpreting half-assedly for Sarah?! Adding on top of that, to see the second Black Deaf female actress, Treshelle Edmond, throwing herself (Lynda) to a White hearing savior?? Lastly, James’s patronizing jokes were winning the audience entirely in the wrong way. So many hearing playgoers, unaware with Deaf culture, are walking away with the wrong impressions that Deaf and/or Black woman can’t function without help of a hearing and/or White spouse. Yes it is truly a sensitive issue for any Deaf-hearing or interracial relationship and this is actually personal for me. Normally people would make a decision at the beginning of each relationship involving with disparity of power between any different hierarchical statues that so many of us could find this theme relatable. But Jackson’s role isn’t helping with this sensitivity.

    Finally, fourth of all, the acting quality truly got me stumped. It’s split equally in bipolar points of masterfully and shitty done. I’m sorry sistas but you both severely need to take up more acting training. Really, this is on the director for not giving you the needed extra attention due to your characters being displayed so shallow. Sarah should have been reflected as a strong and fierce woman but was emitted with Ridloff’s vulnerability with slouched shoulders and multiple awkward and unconvincing facial expressions of dismissive, dubious, and unconcerned looks shown simultaneously. Treshelle, your character isn’t supposed to look like a 12-years old girl! Your posture needs to be portrayed more grown up like a young teen/adult and a seductive one (like shown on “Master of None”—S2/E6). Finally, the chemistry between Jackson and Ridloff is profoundly lost that so many of us were totally not convinced by the romance between them. Jackson had us easily hooked with his sorrow about losing his mother through his free-flowingly tears while Ridloff faked hers with her back shown to us. We Deaf attendees had to rely on the captions of sounds “cries,” implying that she did cry. The emotions throughout of this storyline were both rushed and unconvincing until Orin came on and saved the play. This character was performed by Johnny McGinty, and impressed us with his intense dilemma of becoming political and accidentally hypocritical while trying to pull his close friend Sarah into his fight for Deaf rights. Thanks to his nearly authentic emotions, he kept me from falling asleep and eventually saw Ridloff’s improved acting quality in the second half after the intermission. Btw, can y’all let me know why her (low-voiced) screaming wasn’t captioned? Notably, another small part of Sarah’s mother, performed by Kecia Lewis was absolutely soothing to my eyes seeing her as Mother Hen and feeling her deep pain over the strained relationship between herself and her daughter.

    Now, on my third cup of not-so-shitty airplane coffee, I’m thinking “Nope, not today.” I just could not do this delicately since this wondrous opportunity was totally missed from other incredible and more experienced Deaf actresses. Kenny Leon, put aside your nepotism (no open audition available) and your fetish of Black signing women. Try to swap the race around in each character and then maybe, maybe this play can be half convincing and not so racially and sexually awkward, especially with today’s climate of #BLM and #MeToo. Since this is a repeated pattern of a hearing non-ASL-fluent director, perhaps for future Deaf-related plays, this is a calling for co-directorship with a culturally-Deaf person. Since this slogan of this show is #StartListening, then I suggest you to ask around with Deaf theater-goers for their feedback. Do not limit to Nyle DiMarco, supposedly the “producer” of this play, who overlooked several problematic issues of this production, given his White male perspective. Reach out to other Deaf People-of-Color, especially women, for their observations.

    Good luck with the rest of the scheduled run of this play. Let me know when someone or anybody from Deaf West Theatre writes a revival version of this shortly outlived storyline.
    Rezenet Moges-Riedel