Home News Local news Deaf Community Unveiled in Pistarckle Production

Deaf Community Unveiled in Pistarckle Production

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March 11, 2008 — When Saturday night's play ended at Pistarckle Theater and the question-and-answer session with the audience began, one of the lead characters said the thing he most enjoys about acting is making people laugh.
He said this using his hands. Heath J. Corriette is deaf, and he speaks through American Sign Language.
Corriette plays Tuc in "Mother Hicks," on stage Friday and Saturday for the final weekend at Pistarckle Theater. It's a play set in the Depression, featuring an orphan named Girl, a midwife named Mother Hicks and Tuc, a deaf man perceived by townspeople as little more than an idiot. Because director Bethany Burgess-Smith chose a deaf person to play the role, preparing the cast was a challenge.
Instead of rehearsals starting several weeks before production, the cast of "Mother Hicks," which opened Feb. 29, began preparations in October, taking sign-language classes with master signer Sarah Hancock.
"We spent two of our rehearsals just on the deaf culture and Heath and Kisias's stories," said Burgess-Smith. Heath was understudy for Kisias George, who relinquished the role in January rather than risk her pregnancy. George went on to become the point person for the show's Q&A sessions.
In addition, Hancock worked for two months teaching the deaf actors the meaning of the play before they could begin memorizing lines. The deaf often do not understand the written word, she said.
"One whole concept can be put into one sign," Hancock explained. "That's what American Sign Language is all about. It does not follow English grammar. It doesn't transfer."
Consequently, rehearsals took twice as long.
"You had to explain in two languages what was happening," Burgess-Smith said. "So doing one scene that would normally take a half hour would take an hour."
But ask one of the lead actresses if it was worth it, and the answer was "definitely."
"It's unbelievable," said eighth grader Emma Merritt, who plays Girl. "Heath is really an extraordinary actor. And even if you don't understand sign language, you learn it by being around him."
For Heath, learning that he could move an audience to laughter was also well worth the months he dedicated to the show.
"The first time he wore his hearing aid he couldn't identify laughter," Burgess-Smith explained. Backstage manager Jared Knoy had to explain it to him, she said. "He didn't know what it was. He said, 'What was that sound?' Jared said, 'That's the audience laughing!' And he said, 'Oh!'
"That was the only thing his hearing aid could pick up, and he just loved that. It made him feel purposeful."
Watching Tuc morph from the "village idiot" to a person whose language was virtual poetry left the audience moved, as well. They later learned from George that 50 deaf people live on St. Thomas, many in isolation and without support services, prompting one audience member to encourage George and her peers to avail themselves of a program for the hearing impaired at the University of the Virgin Islands.
"When you reach out to the community and offer them something new, you often find people are pleasantly surprised, and in turn they offer something back," said Nikki Emerich, the play's producer and the founder and president of Pistarckle.
Hancock hopes that the awakening many audience members experienced will ignite a formal coming together between the community's deaf and hearing population, perhaps in the form of regular get-togethers at Tillett Gardens, home of Pistarckle.
She cited one example of how the friendships built between Heath and his fellow hearing actors have already opened up Heath's world to interaction the hearing community takes for granted. It happened at Plaza Extra, where Heath works bagging groceries at night.
"One of the actors told me, 'Oh, I went to the grocery store the other night with my mom and Heath was working, so we had a conversation,'" Hancock recounted. "So now he knows people who can walk in and talk with him, which is really nice."
"Mother Hicks" is on stage at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, as well as 2 p.m. Saturday. The Q&A will follow Friday's show. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 at the door, and $10 for students.
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