Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear
This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Trevor Boffone prescribes, a much wider and more corporeal understanding of the practice that goes beyond an emphasis on the ear and even on sound itself. –Editor-in-Chief JS
As Kent, a Deaf man, stands on stage in Tamales de Puerco, signing his story of struggling and growing up in a hearing family, the only aural sounds in the theater come from the audience: the sounds of crying. Performed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL), Tamales offers a glimpse into the seldom seen realities of life as a single mother to a Deaf child as it intersects with Latinidad. The play presents the story of Norma, a young mother who confronts her abusive husband and challenges a country that rejects and oppresses her as an undocumented immigrant. She overcomes the hardships of being Latina, undocumented, and having a Deaf child (Mauricio) without any support from her husband, her mother, and local and state institutions. Ultimately, Norma must negotiate cultural citizenship and notions of belonging to the Deaf Latin@ community so that her son can have more opportunities. The play uses—and calls attention to—silence as an essential building block in the process of constructing, remixing, and performing the complexities of Latin@ identity.
Listening to the silences in Latin@ theatre performance offers crucial insight into how the Latin@ population and Latinidad fit into the fabric of the United States in the 21st Century, as Marci R. McMahon notes in “Soundscapes of Narco Silence.” In Tamales, the staging of Deafness creates a particular kind of silence that promotes new listening strategies. What I find most compelling is how Deafness on stage–and the particular silences Deafness can create–opens up a space for what Steph Ceraso calls “multimodal listening,” listening as a full-bodied event not solely linked to the ears, but rather connected to “bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics.” Calling attention to the body as it does, the silences in the play give weight to Kent’s story and affects the viewer beyond the limits of voiced acting by encouraging spectators to concentrate on the actors’ physical emotions and how actors’ bodies work to transmit messages without verbal cues. I argue Tamales promotes multimodal listening by forcing spectators to use their “Third Ear”—a mode of listening across domains of silence, sound, and the moving body—as a device to understand a seemingly silent world.
To do this, I engage with the playscript and recordings of the 2013 production of Mercedes Floresislas’s Tamales de Puerco at CASA 0101 Theater under Edward Padilla’s direction. While Floresislas’s script raised many complex issues surrounding the Deaf Latin@ community, Padilla’s staging focused on the intersections of Deafness and Latinidad by foregrounding the use of silence in the production. [Note: I use the capitalized versions of Deaf and Deafness. A standard dictionary definition of “deaf” represents one who is partially or unable to hear (deaf and hearing impaired are essentially interchangeable). Deaf with a capital D, however, refers to the community that self-identifies as belonging to the Deaf culture. Deafness, therefore, is a sign of health and prognosis of well-being among sign language dependent hearing-impaired people. Likewise, hearing versus Hearing represents a similar biological/cultural binary.]
In Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater, one of the few studies to devote critical attention to Deaf theater as it relates to multicultural experience and identity, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren introduces the “Third Ear,” a useful term that facilitates focusing one’s attention on the performative forms of expression. Blending sensory, spatial, and visual elements generates a Third Ear that acts as a “Deaf-gain,” a hybrid mode of hearing and coming to know the world. When specific senses are lost, the mind becomes dynamic in such a way that continues to allow affected individuals to actively engage with their surroundings, with their community. Deaf people, therefore, do not lack a vital sense, but rather they gain a new sense—one typically inaccessible to hearing individuals– that enables them to successfully navigate their surroundings. Kochhar-Lindgren’s work focuses attention on the “sense” of performance and the different movements that work together to form speech sensed by the “Third Ear.” For audience members, learning to perceive the mixing of forms together as communication is fundamental to understanding the messages presented on stage; inevitably, the Third Ear promotes auditory silence yet it establishes that a lack of sound does not necessarily correspond with a lack of understanding. By removing all sound, silence gains power.
The evocation of the Third Ear separates Tamales from the majority of Latin@ theater productions grounded in aural languages such as English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Deafness is seldom represented onstage in any type of theater, aside from revivals of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, more contemporary works such as Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and the work of Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood, whose most recent production, Spring Awakening received rave reviews and will move Broadway in September 2015. The work of Deaf West has been of particular interest to Sound Studies scholars for its unique contributions to the American Theatre. In Cara Cardinale’s 2012 SO! post, she discusses Deaf West’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the roles were reversed. The production’s interpreters were for the hearing audience and, thus, sign language took center stage. Yet, all of these more well-known works focus on Anglo experiences, neglecting the specific intersectional challenges that Deaf people of color face such as limited access to state-funded resources such as counseling services, educational inequality and the achievement gap, not to mention that the majority of Deaf Latin@s do not have parents who can sign with them (re: effectively communicate).
The Third Ear, as evoked in Tamales, seems especially suited for representing Latin@ Deafness onstage and evoking a concomitant visceral understanding in audiences. Floresislas’s writing and Padilla’s direction work together to strategically allow audience members to develop a Third Ear at key moments in the play, enabling them to fill silences they might have otherwise perceived as gaps. Entering Tamales’ silent world not only compels hearing audiences to recognize their supposed privilege, but pushes toward a deeper understanding of the relativity of hearing-as-privilege. In a Deaf world, hearing is not a privilege, but rather one of many ways to come to know the world. In this regard, Tamales reiterates Liana Silva’s argument that “deafness complicates what it means to listen” by calling attention to the many non-auditory signals that are vital to the act.
In addition, Tamales deliberately fosters moments of uncomfortable silences that are one of the production’s strengths. For example, silence plays a key role in an early scene in which Norma decides to leave her abusive husband, Reynaldo. In this violent episode–either by a deafening blow or disassociation–everything in her world goes silent. While Reynaldo yells at her and throws things around the house, his voice fades out. However, as Norma sits in silence, she becomes better able to navigate her abusive marriage. Norma hears the silence. Her hypervigilance increases her ability to identify potential threat(s) and, ultimately, she takes her son and flees from the situation. While Norma taps into her Third Ear on stage, the audience also enters a silent world in which they must seek alternative methods to actively engage with the production. By “losing” their hearing along with Norma, the audience must pay a different kind of attention to her to gain an understanding of the scene.
Along with recognizing certain hearing privileges, listening with the Third Ear both connects and separates the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Norma attends an AA meeting for Deaf people, Padilla’s direction activates the Third Ear by removing sound from the stage. In the original playscript, Floresislas wanted Kent’s monologue to include a voice-over, but during rehearsals, Padilla saw the potential to foreground the silence in this scene (and throughout the piece, as well); his direction transformed the staging from an aural scene to a silent one. Listening with the Third Ear enables the audience to blend sensory and visual hearing in order to understand the emotional depth of the action transpiring on stage. As Kent stands in silence, signing his story about the difficulties of connecting with his hearing father, many in the audience were audibly moved. During Kent’s monologue, the actor remained silent while supertitles revealed his speech:
Yesterday, my father had a heart attack and I got called to his bedside at the hospital. I had not seen him for almost 15 years! I had never had a conversation with my father; yes, he was hearing and I was his only deaf child. (…) I always believed by dad hated me; nothing I did was ever good enough. He was always watching me and looking angry for everything I ever did or asked. I actually wished he’d ignore me like the rest of the family! (15)
Particularly gripping, this scene acts as a crucial building block in the necessity of creating opportunities for her son that drives Norma’s story forward, not to mention that it calls attention to the fact that reading isn’t necessarily a silent act. Kent’s story reveals much to a hearing audience who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf Latin@ community. Kent’s experience is typical of Deaf Latin@s, only 20% of whom have parents that can sign. It compels an understanding of the reasons why Norma learns ASL and pushes for a better life for her son. She does not want him to be in the same position that Kent finds himself in. And, she does not want to have the regret of having never learned to communicate with him. Kent continues:
Yesterday, he looked frail; he was paralyzed on one side. When he saw me, he moved his hand like this (brushes his left hand up the center of his chest then points at). At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when he did it again, I understood. He said, “I’m proud of you.” Then he signed “I love you.” (…) My niece told me he had been learning ASL for the last 3 months because he wanted to tell me how sorry he was for not being able to talk to me. My dad didn’t hate me; he hated himself for not being able to talk to me! (…) But yesterday, I also had my first and last conversation with my dad he signed for me! That…makes me feel very proud! (15-16)
As Kent stands in silence, his emotional journey is given life through his hands and body. Interestingly, the silences enacted onstage by Tamales actually create sound, amplifying the sobbing that emanates from the audience in both its auditory and visual manifestations. The way in which silence allows the audiences’ sonic reactions to become part of the play itself suggests that how—and why–the audience responds may actually be more important than the performance itself. How much are the sobs about the heartbreaking nature of Kent’s story and how much of it is recognizing one’s own privileges? How much of it is the audience connecting with the story? How much of it is about seeing themselves represented? And how does silence amplify “listening” to Kent’s story?
While not exhaustive, my reading of Tamales widens the conversation about the intricacies of Deaf Latin@ performance. The 2013 production of Tamales best hints at the possibilities of Latin@ performance in Boyle Heights and how community-based theater companies such as CASA 0101 can work to provide more access to Deaf people, thus forging both an inclusive community and theater company. More plays featuring Deaf characters, incorporating Deaf actors, and Deaf dramatists are needed, something Floresislas is already exploring. Still, much research remains as to how Deaf Latinidad is heard and how this identity fits into a performance framework. Through multimodal listening, Tamales urges spectators to leave the theater considering how they may or may not alter their actions to better benefit underprivileged and underrepresented communities such as the Latin@ Deaf community. Quite frankly, Tamales opens the “eyes and ears” of audiences. Now is the time to listen to Deaf Latinidad. What will we choose to hear in the silence?
Still Images from Tamales de Puerco, permission courtesy of CASA 0101 Theatre. Featured Image: Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, dramaturge, and producer. He is a co-founder of Amaranto Productions and a member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. Trevor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. His dissertation, Performing Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López and Theater for Social Change in Boyle Heights, is a study of theater and performance in East Los Angeles, focusing primarily on Josefina López’s role as a playwright, mentor, and community leader. He has published and presented original research on Chicana Feminist Teatro, the body in performance, Deaf Latinidad, Queer Latinidad, as well as the theater of Adelina Anthony, Nilo Cruz, Virginia Grise, Josefina López, Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, and Carmen Peláez. Trevor recently served as a Research Fellow at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin for his project Bridging Women in Mexican-American Theater from Villalongín to Tafolla (1848-2014).
my mother’s voice, my father’s eye, and my other body: the sound of deaf photographs
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012. Read last week’s post by Liana Silva here–JSA
Lately, I’ve been halted by a particular photograph of my mother. Like Roland Barthes’ wonderland photo of his mother in Camera Lucida,
this picture “corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” (8).
It began when my father reorganized his photographs. Since retirement, he’s taken on archival projects with renewed fervor. He began with 1974 (the year I was born), made it all the way to 1984 and from there slipped back. My mother, a freckled farm girl in South Dakota, standing in front of a box house and snow, lots of snow. The year, 1957 or so. My father in a high chair in Sepulveda, California. Perhaps 1948. By then my grandparents knew he was deaf.
And every couple of weeks or so my dad calls me. I finished another year, come see the pictures, he tells me via the Iphone, his slow, thoughtful typing shaped by many years of TTY-use (TTYs, or “Text Telephones,” are increasingly receding from every day use, replaced by chatting and text messaging). I imagine him at home in my old room, surrounded by generations of Waldners, Cardinales, Jensons and Ewings. Eagerly, he fills an old stereoscope viewer with 3d slides. His favorite is of my brother and me at the Buschart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. My brother is six and I am eight; our young faces are carefully tilted towards the pale cabbage roses. My father fits more years into fewer albums, filing the stray photos in new Costco cardboard photo boxes. And yet, as he reduces by putting old pictures into new boxes, he continually finds older pictures, older boxes.
The last time he called me, he was in 1984. These pictures depress my dad; he won’t spend much time here. In the photos I’m always on the phone or covering my face. Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the times he would attempt to enter my teenage world of sound. He’d follow the knotted coil of the cord, pick up the phone and say “huh-lllll-ooo,” exaggerating his lips in a comical lip-synch, emitting a low, guttural voice while I danced for the phone. We’d both laugh as if we secretly agreed: hearing language is silly, ugly; my father rarely uses his voice.
But within 1984 was a stack of black and white 5×6 matte photographs bound by a rubber band. They were a series of still television shots of my mother. We lived in Berkeley then, and my mother would drive to San Francisco to record the DeafNews; I remember being sleepy, confused, and excited when my mother’s face appeared on the TV. These photographs frame my mother the way I saw her: her face elongated by the distorting concave screen surrounded by blackness; in the picture she seems still to be floating in TV space. I wonder, who stood in front of the television, through several barriers and captured these stills of language?
In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus. It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo. “Careless Whispers” played as it did at all high school dances and embraced couples locked bodies in a slow sway on the dance floor. The music, the discomfort of boys in pressed shirts and Drakkar Noir, it was no different than the stiff dances at Ramona High school down the street. But it was Deaf more than any silence could be. When my friends found out my parents were deaf they nearly almost always gasped: “I bet your house must be so quiet!”; they nearly always got it wrong. Here, in this cafeteria-turned “sea of love,” Deafness announced itself. Deafness was not mute.
sound does not just enter the gateway of hearing; it can also be perceived through the sense of force” (77).
The song changed to M.C. Hammer, and the dancers on the floor continued slowly rocking. A nervous looking redhead held his palm out with one hand and with the other shaped his hands to form legs; he put the two signs together and asked me to dance.
I was flattered, and acutely aware that I was the foreigner there. As I took his hand, I was filled with adolescent shame forever demanding: “be quiet! People can hear.”
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,/sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres/tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,/tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño–Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets Cien Sonetos de Amor
I am six, and eight, and thirteen. The door is open, so I crawl into my parents’ bed, and the pull of the sheets awakens my mother. She grasps my hand. I whisper in sign language so my father won’t be disturbed by the light. Then, I take her hand and listen, tracing the terrain of her fingers, following the curves to read her words. I fall asleep talking to my mother, her hand in mine, my father’s snoring vibrating the bed.
I am twenty-nine and I am watching her hands, her signing, and seeing my own. Her name, signed with a sweep from a handshape “L” to a curved “C” down the shoulder to the wrist (my name, the same “C”)— “now I know your mother, you sign just like her.” And my punctum—sting, speck, prick—the kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward ‘the rest’ of nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. Barthes again.
Her hands—her hands and my hands, let me see your hands she tells me. She too sees herself on my body; we are both always looking at the blurrr of her hands.
And looking, I return always to a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axototl” from Blow-Up and Other Stories about a boy who spends hours at the aquarium watching the axolotls; he is transfixed, haunted, obsessed, and keeps returning to watch these fish, no not fish. The boy consults a dictionary and discovers that they are the larval stage of a kind of Mexican salamander. I find the boy and his axolotls among my books, and discover highlighted in purple:
I was, I am, struck by this passage. These atavistic creatures capture, compress space and being. Identity breaks down—I, we, they are no longer discrete. What side are you on? Mother, Father Deaf.
When I was eleven our family bought a deluxe conversion Dodge Caravan complete with metallic bronze customized paint job, rust colored velour captain’s chairs, and a boomerang-shaped television antenna. I went with my parents to the car dealer on a sticky August afternoon. “We want a minivan,” my mother signed to me, I voiced to the short man with greasy black hair and uncomfortably freckled arms. He immediately took us past rows of suburb-like cutouts of vans and led us to the Las Vegas model of minivans—all the deluxe features and without a deluxe price. A special deal. I signed this eagerly—I wanted my parents to understand as I did—we were lucky to see this car. It’s a familiar scene: father adjusting the seats and falling in love with cruise control; mother insisting it was more than they budgeted; the dealer crawling in the back and hollering out through the nifty sliding third door all of the fantastic features.
Inside the car. Tell them the back seat can be removed for more room. Tell them there’s an acoustical equalizer for the stereo. Tell them there’s air conditioning. Tell them there’s a threeyearthirtythousandmilewarranty. Tell them we do financing right here in the lot. Tell them.
Outside the car. Is this the best price? Does he have anything less expensive? Does it come with a warranty? Do you have special discounts? Are you telling us everything?
“Yes, they like all the extras.” No—best price.
We left the dealer and got back into our happy orange VW van. My bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats and I cried. My mother was upset: “What’s wrong? Did you want that car?”.
The salesman knew my parents didn’t care about the equalizer or the TV monitor in the back seat; but he didn’t know they understood. “How nice of you to help your mother go to the store and do the groceries” while my mother writes a check, looking at the cash register screen for the correct amount. I am the mute one. “What did the lady say?” my mother asks; “nothing,” is my silent reply. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Yes, my mother has a college degree. Table 7 shows that the proportion of persons 18 years of age and over with under 12 years of education increases monotonically as the level of their hearing ability decreases. A bachelor of library sciences. No, she does not work in a library. They were afraid of what would happen if she answered the phone. They were afraid of hearing a deaf woman speak. We moved several times when the rent for one reason or another had to go up; even being six you become familiar with friendly discomfort. Interpreting for my mother when she caught my landlord in a contradictory lie—the distrust on both sides boomeranged off my nine-year old body.
In that parking lot, the traffic of misunderstanding and mistrust, all I wanted to do was to hide my lips, shield my transparent body so that neither side would see they were being betrayed.
The stage is dark, but the theatre is vibrating. “Red hots . . .” lingers in the air. My dad taps me on the shoulder. What does the music sound like?
My father is sitting to my left, my husband to my right. It is between scenes at the DEAFWEST performance of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m thrilled to watch the interpreters peering from the balcony above; their voices float above the Deaf actors who take center stage. Sign language takes center stage. The interpreters are for the hearing. The dividing line of the stage is several feet ahead of us. Blanche Dubois begins signing to Stella on the stage. But unlike the other Deaf actors, Blanche speaks with her own voice; the interpreters above are silent. Her signs are stiff, they struggle to keep up with her vocal cadence. I nod as I watch, transfixed: everything has been reversed.
I quickly sign to my father: She is speaking. She’s hearing! Then I lean over and whisper to my husband: her signing. It’s not Deaf. She’s hearing.
I am signing Deaf. I am whispering Hearing.
Cara Cardinale gives sound to her narrative with her mother’s voice–“sounding out” against audist notions of sound that keep Deaf voices silent and perpetuate the idea that deafness is interchangeable with muteness. She would like to thank her mother for sharing her beautiful voice, which to a CODA is a distinctive and comforting sound but often carries a stigma outside the home. Cara uses her own signing body here, not as interpreter, but as primary narration of this intimate photograph.
From his jacket pocket, my father pulls out his hearing aid still marked with red dormitory tape from his years at the residential state school for the Deaf; the opaque embossed letters have slowly curled back on themselves. He adjusts the petrified, squealing earmold then smiles at me.
Her hands are strapped to the hospital bed. More violent than the search for willing veins to take the sedatives, is the silencing. I cover my mouth to keep from gagging. In the darkness, I watch the television screen as it shows the tour of my mother’s internal body: my face looking back at me against the glass.
The doctor freezes the image and points out the polyps clinging to the intestinal walls. But I see gestation, birth—I am looking from the inside out:
If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides. When we experience this passage . . . intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (218).
It was my body in her body and I found myself looking for the lost baby from years ago; perhaps it was there, inside of her body, my body.
The intimacy, the motion still in the blurrr of the photograph. I am fascinated with a delightful dread, horror. Her name in captions, my name. Her body, my body. That picture says everything about my body. Everything about sitting between my father and my husband: lines drawn between us in the newly reupholstered seats, steel blue like everything new, between the actors and the audience, close enough to see the eyeliner drawn in for emphasis, between the Deaf actors on the stage and the hearing interpreters peering over them on the balcony.
I am transfixed. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Florescent lights saturate the room. I lean forward; take a breath; faint.
center of vision
Sometime within the last six months, my father’s left eye has had an aneurysm. This led to a detached retina and a burst blood vessel. The blood has been slowly moving towards the center of vision. During the day, my father sees shadows. And my mother has been hearing things. Last week she was startled by a high pitched noise; moments later the light in the kitchen flashed indicating that the phone was ringing. Lines are bleeding. The darkness is terrifying for my father in the same way that sound has become disorienting for my mother. And lately I’ve been on the verge of vertigo. It seems as if it were the moving forwards and looking backwards at the same time that’s been disorienting me.
I go with my father to see a retinal specialist. Once in the examining room, I am in the dark again. I am signing in the dark, but my father cannot hold my hand. He is across the room, peering at me with one eye, seeing my signs with the shadow of the pinlight. It must be dark, they explain, his eye needs time to dilate, to open so we can see inside. He will be injected with a kind of serum so that the shadow can be seen.
While we wait for the dizzy eye to dilate, I describe my vertigo to my father. He notes with interest and nods, yes, mother took me to doctors in Washington D.C. He looks at me. Your age. Even the emergency room. Nothing wrong. Gone—he signs with a shrug. Maybe gone—he points at me—soon.
The doctor returns and looks into my father’s eye. The serum has worked, and the image is transparent.
I see his eye, enlarged, disembodied, projected on the screen behind him. It is beautiful and dark, a moonscape clouded over by an eclipse. Everything is transparent, and I think of the axolotls.
C.L. Cardinale has a PhD in English Literature from University of California, Riverside. Currently she is editing her manuscript on what she calls “look-listening”—deafened gestures—in twentieth century narratives. She also publicly reads Proust, edits for Lettered Press, and sings with her one and six year old in California’s east bay.