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Vineyard's deaf past is retold in drama of signs and speech

A community from long ago comes back to life on stage

Outside Alley's General Store in West Tisbury, a group of middle school students watched intently as Joan Poole Nash told them about a remarkable bit of Martha's Vineyard history. In the 19th century, because of a recessive gene, one out of every four people in the nearby town of Chilmark -- one out of every four people who used to meet at this very store -- was deaf.

But that's not the remarkable part.

What's remarkable is that no one in Chilmark thought it was remarkable. In this insular community, people just thought deafness was a common characteristic, one that didn't matter much more than height or hair color, because everyone here, hearing and deaf, knew sign language.

American Sign Language was what Nash used to tell the story, because most of the people in the group of about 20 were deaf.

The few who weren't and who didn't know ASL had interpreters next to them. They could catch the gist, but could only wonder about the nuances, the asides, the little jokes that don't bear translating, the shared understanding that only a shared language can give.

These students have studied the Vineyard's deaf history for 10 weeks. They'll be presenting a new play about it today and tomorrow at Boston's Wheelock Family Theatre.

As Nash was talking on Martha's Vineyard, a ripple went through the group. A girl tugged at her mother's elbow; another one pointed. Off to the side, an elderly woman, a stranger, was watching them in astonishment. And she was signing.

"She's signing!" the students told each other. "What's she saying? Who is she?" In ASL, the woman introduced herself: Cay Munro, 83, formerly of Chicago and now living with her son on the Vineyard. Her father was deaf; she spent her career counseling deaf people.

"You're a CODA!" shouted Kalman Cagan-Teuber, 14, referring to a child of deaf adults. "So am I!"

Munro smiled, then asked where the students were from and what they were doing there. They explained: 70 students from the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Allston, working with Wheelock Family Theatre, had been studying the Vineyard's deaf history. Eight of them came to the island to see the sights they had learned about, to visit the graves of some of the island's deaf, and to perform a staged reading of a new play that tells this history.

They invited Munro to the reading, and she left with her son, everyone still marveling at the encounter. Bumping into someone who knew their language, at the very moment that they were reflecting on how that used to be commonplace here: What were the chances? And it was striking, to those who didn't share the language, how quickly everyone knew that this stranger was someone who did.

"You know when there's a deaf person coming -- you can kind of sense it," interpreter Christopher S. Robinson said. The etiquette of eye contact is different in the deaf community, he explained. "Looking away is rude: You've just told me to shut up." So deaf people, and hearing people who use ASL, have a particular intensity of focus when they're watching someone sign. "When a person does that, it's not normal in this majority culture, so you notice."

"Deaf eyes," it's sometimes called. The students' excursion into the Vineyard's deaf past comes to the Wheelock's stage with a full production of the new play by Catherine Rush and Adrian Blue, "A Nice Place to Live." It offers a rare opportunity for people from two cultures, hearing and deaf, to see the world through each other's eyes.

Blue, a noted deaf director and actor, and Rush, a hearing actor and playwright, created the play in both ASL and spoken English. Sometimes sign and spoken language parallel each other; other lines are only signed, and still others only spoken. At different moments, any audience member, hearing or deaf, is going to feel a little lost, frustrated, and left out. And that's just what the playwrights want.

"It's a cultural experience," Blue explained through an interpreter, during a break from directing a rehearsal at Wheelock. "The hearing audience and the deaf audience are in the same boat. They all get the same message. Some are farther away, some are closer, but eventually they all meet at the same place." That experience, Blue said, reflects reality. "I can't spoonfeed everybody. It's real life. It's about two languages, two cultures, becoming one."

There are aesthetic considerations as well, Rush had said in Harwich, where the students did a staged reading before the Vineyard trip. "One of the things Adrian doesn't like is interpreters -- it drives him crazy," she said. "He feels very strongly that if someone is onstage, they should have a reason to be onstage."

So the two of them worked hard to make the English and ASL parts of the play flow together. And if one language ever has to take a back seat, it's English.

For Jackie Pransky, 14, the play connects deeply with her life. After Blue opened the first Harwich rehearsal by acting out the story for the students, Pransky ran up to Jody Steiner, director of Wheelock's PAH! Deaf Youth Theatre. "It's like the story of my life," she signed to Steiner. "I love this -- the emotion, the human element, all the feelings."

Pransky's fingers danced along her arm in an unmistakable sign of shivery thrill. It hardly required translation: "Goosebumps!"

Touring the Vineyard with the students gave the same sense of tables turned that the play is after. In this group, to be hearing is to be in the minority. Yes, there are interpreters -- and this community is especially careful to include everyone in the conversation, because its members know too well what it's like to feel left out -- but it's only when you're the one who needs an interpreter for every exchange that you realize how exhausting and distancing it can be. Essential communication happens, but you come to see that it's the little things -- the jokes, the passing comments, the small talk -- that build connections between people, and that feel hard to share when you can't speak directly with each other.

It's precisely because they know all this that Blue and Rush, and their young actors, are particularly fascinated by the unique community their play depicts.

"It's not a story about deaf people; it's not a story about hearing people. It's a story about a nice place to live because it didn't matter," Blue told the students in Harwich. "If you saw a person, you said hello. If you sign to them, you sign to them; if you speak to them, you speak to them. It's kind of a magical place, a utopian place. No one felt better than another person because they could hear; no deaf person felt `less than' because they were deaf."

The play, using fictional characters with common Vineyard names, dramatizes the conflicts that arose when that magic began to disappear. It was the isolation of the island community that had made its uniquely shared culture both possible and necessary; most people in Chilmark had never been off the island, so they didn't know they were unique. When outsiders "from away" began to come, toward the end of the 19th century, that changed.

People started sending their children to mainland schools for the deaf; often those children, having seen the larger world, didn't come back. Outsiders diluted the gene pool. The last deaf member of this community died in 1952.

That history was fading when Nash, whose family has been on the island since the 17th century, started researching it. She had heard stories from her great-grandmother, who was hearing but could sign. And, Nash said, some of her signs were unique to the Vineyard: flicking fingers for "cranberry," two hooked fingers for "swordfish," a hand swimming like shells for "scallop."

At the cemetery, Nash led the students past the usual tourist stops -- John Belushi, Lillian Hellman -- to some older headstones.

"West!" Giuseppe Giacubbo, 14, signed excitedly. "That's my character!"

"His nickname was Honking George," Nash said.

"Look!" signed Timothy Holmes, 13. "I'm Mr. Look!"

The students rambled on among the weathered stones. Every few minutes, one stopped and signed to the others to come see a familiar name. Laughing, pointing, pulling each other forward, they shared the excitement of finding a community where, once, their language was the one everyone knew.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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