At times the tale of Romeo and Juliet feels as dead as the star-crossed lovers themselves. We already have West Side Story, Leonardo DiCaprio as a knight in shining armor, and a countless number of loosely interpreted romances between two people from feuding families. But that didn’t stop Red Theater founder Aaron Sawyer from tackling it anyway.
“Frankly we just didn’t know what to do for our season, and we started writing down things that you can’t do,” Sawyer says. Reinterpreting Romeo and Juliet topped the list of theater no-nos. Eventually the list of “can’t”s lead to the idea of performing a play in sign language. Sawyer stole a line from the Bard—”Let hands do what lips do”—and the idea for the theater’s current production, R + J: The Vineyard, was born.
The production (which Reader critic Marissa Oberlander called “one of the most visceral, relatable, and affecting Shakespeare performances in recent memory”) sets the story of two households in 1890s Martha’s Vineyard, a time and place when hereditary deafness led to an increased deaf population and the invention of the earliest versions of American Sign Language. Everyone knew the language then, Sawyer says, a far cry from the divide between hearing and deaf culture today. His hope with this show is to bridge that gap.
But it wasn’t easy. The production took two years to pull together because of difficulties communicating, translating the text into sign, and erasing any negative stigmas surrounding deaf culture, such as categorizing the deaf as “special needs” or creating an “accessible” show. Too often those types of performances end up being boring and don’t fully represent the dynamics of a nonhearing world.
It was thanks in great part to the interpreters that the show ended up getting off the ground. Once rehearsals began Sawyer and the rest of the cast and crew realized that the translation process actually helped everyone understand Shakespeare’s words more than ever before. “In a hearing world you get bombarded by these words and your brain can’t keep up,” Sawyer says. “But in sign language you suddenly understand everything, and it’s so much more visceral.”
During the past two years Sawyer learned the language as well as he could and found joy in how deaf people communicate. Hearing people often talk over each other or look at their phones and other distractions while having a conversation, but in deaf culture you have to pay attention to hand signals and facial expressions and take turns if you want to understand one another. Sawyer hopes that through more projects like this the cultural gap can be closed and hearing people can share his experience.
“I quickly became the outsider and the one who was insufficient. My communication was lacking,” Sawyer says. “The first time the workshop happened I did cry a little bit when I got five deaf people to show up in a room when I was never able to communicate with them before.”
R+J: The Vineyard, through 11/21: Fri, Sat, and Mon 8 PM, Sun 7 PM; also Thu 11/19, 8 PM, Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway, redtheater.org/rj-in-asl, free.