This blog was originally published on February 19, 2017 under a different site.
I saw Deaf Crows in Edmonton last night and read Judith Butler’s essay “Being Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy” on the flight home today, so I’ll try putting them together in this review.
Deaf Crows is the artistic creation of Regina high school teacher Joanne Weber and her ensemble cast that includes her students and deaf elder/master ASL teacher Allard Thomas, along with various other supporting characters. The play grew out of an arts-based intervention by Weber to try and reach her students, all of whom grew up in mainstream elementary settings without exposure to ASL or deaf culture and experienced significant academic and language delays as a direct result.
“We come into the world on the condition that the social world is already there, laying the groundwork for us.”
The play begins with the image of a tree cast on the wall beside the stage using light and shadow. With Thomas narrating, the tree is a metaphor for the R.J.D. Williams School for the Deaf in Saskatoon, which closed in 1991. Where formerly birds had gathered on each branch of the tree, they became dispersed after the school closed and the tree was chopped down. Soon, the birds can no longer fly.
“If we are not recognizable, if there are no norms of recognition by which we are recognizable, then it is not possible to persist in one’s own being, and we are not possible beings; we have been foreclosed from possibility.”
The six students in the play, wearing black clothes and crow masks, dramatize their experiences as deaf children in elementary school. These episodes highlight the students’ neglect, exclusion, and tormenting by teachers and other students. At the close of each scene, there is a single student left alone on the stage, whom Thomas the narrator approaches and attempts to engage with. He gives each student in turn a single black feather to represent their brush with ASL and deaf culture.
“Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home.”
In a sense, this is Thomas’ play. Slim and erect in dark suit and tie with white hair pulled back, his clear and classical ASL narration draws parallels between the students’ childhood experiences of isolation and his own of being fully immersed in language, culture, and community. In this way, he insists on the lived experiences and knowledge of deaf community elders. My initial reaction was to think that Thomas and the students are worlds apart. Yet Weber told me that he has been involved in every aspect of her intervention with her students, from the beginning. Unsentimental and dry-eyed, Thomas’ discourse was mirrored in the faces and signing of other deaf elders in the Edmonton audience last night. It is important to raise awareness. It is important to support the kids.
“It may be that what is right and what is good consists in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, in knowing unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need, and in recognizing the signs of life in what we undergo without certainty about what will come.”
I have not yet begun to explore the relationship between art and language revitalization. In a world bound up with assessments and normative benchmarks, perhaps art is the sole remaining hope of freedom for no-longer children who have been deprived of childhood. Discourses of language deprivation are concerned with prevention; they offer no guidance for how we may attempt to address the present needs of an entire generation who have been deprived of language. At the end of the play, the students stand onstage and sign about their dreams for themselves and their futures. They admit they have forgotten their lines, and there is no script for them.