Deaf Culture on Martha's Vineyard Playwriters Adrian Blue and Catherine Rush talk about their new play that focuses on the history of the deaf community on Martha's Vinyard.
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Deaf Culture on Martha's Vineyard

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Deaf Culture on Martha's Vineyard

Deaf Culture on Martha's Vineyard

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In the history of deaf culture, Martha's Vineyard holds a special place. For more than 200 years, the island was home to one of the largest deaf communities in the country. But islanders never treated deafness as a disability. Instead, they created a sign language that everyone used: hearing and deaf.

A new play in development at the Martha's Vineyard Playhouse explores this era. This Island Alone recreates the harmony between the hearing and the deaf that used to exist, and the discord that ensues when the mainland intruded. For more, we go now to the co-writers, Adrian Blue and Catherine Rush. Adrian Blue is deaf and will communicate with us through an interpreter, Alec Lev. And welcome to you all.

Ms. CATHERINE RUSH (Playwright; Co-writer, This Island Alone): Thank you.

Ms. ADRIAN BLUE (Theater Director; Co-writer, This Island Alone): (Through interpreter): How you doing?

CONAN: And let me ask Adrian Blue. To begin with, the time you are writing about, almost - a large percentage of the people on Martha's Vineyard were fluent in two languages?

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) They used sign language, and they spoke at the same time. It's questionable, the word fluent, but they were comfortable in both languages, communicating in both languages. They had a healthy attitude towards the entire situation. There was nothing there other than perhaps a linguistic barrier, which was broken through.

CONAN: I was reading a little bit about it today. Kids used to use sign behind their teacher's back. It was a pretty universal language.

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Well, yeah. I mean, but it's just like hearing kids writing notes back and forth to each other behind the teacher's back. It's the same thing.

CONAN: Sure. Now your play takes place at the general store. Why there?

Ms. RUSH: The general store was the place where the community met to talk and, obviously, to shop. But they got together and talked about the day and things that were happening and who'd moved in and who've moved out. So it's a very good place to set a play because a lot can happen.

CONAN: And the synopsis that I've read of your play suggests that a great deal of tension was inspired by a single question. What was it, and who asked it?

Ms. RUSH: The question was asked, and we don't know when the question was asked. But from oral histories, we know that an off-island newcomer came to a town meeting, and before a vote was taken, asked if deaf-mutes were allowed to vote. Deaf-mute was the term at the time, it wasn't politically incorrect - but asked if they were allowed to vote, and it caused quite a ruckus. The oral history - 50 years later, people were still angry about it.

CONAN: Now this - the sign language that was used at the time, it is not the American Sign Language that we're familiar with today.

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Exactly. It's not American Sign Language. However, it's kind of a blending of sign language and their own local signs. They might have some signs that were sort of homemade that became part of the language. Now those home signs are gone. We don't have those anymore.

CONAN: Could you describe those for us?

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Okay, well, they're older signs. You would made a hand shape - let's say one that look like what you'd use for a telephone, what people typically use to describe a telephone, you'd have that sort of thing. But remember, in the old days, you have a different kind of telephone, right? You have one piece that's help up to your ear and one microphone that's held up to your mouth. So the sign would become - imagine doing that. Imagine holding an old-time telephone up to your ear and mouth. That's one example.

CONAN: We're talking with playwright Adrian Blue and Catherine Rush about a new play that they're developing in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, about that island's deaf history. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you. This play is in two languages. It's not written, as I understand it, in English and translated to sign, nor vice versa, but written in both languages at the same time. At let me ask you, Catherine Rush. First of all, how did you do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSH: Well, first of all, it's - sign language, American Sign Language -which this play is not in, but is influenced by - is not a written language. So the play itself is written in English, the script is written in English. However, while we're in rehearsal process, Adrian is responsible for writing the sign-language portion of the play, and we work with the actors to develop that.

One of the things that makes it unusual is that you cannot sign American Sign Language and speak English at the same time. However, on Martha's Vineyard, they did sign and speak at the same time. So what we are developing is a type of language that we think might have existed in Martha's Vineyard that is gestural, but is also linguistically clear so that a deaf audience that would be watching it would be completely clear about what's happening on the stage and a part of the action on the stage just equally with the hearing audience.

CONAN: Yet Adrian Blue, obviously, part of the play is in English, too. Aren't the deaf members of the audience going to be frustrated by their inability to understand the English?

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Well, what's going to happen here is - I'll tell you that I'm deaf, okay? I'm profoundly deaf, I'm culturally deaf, and I'm confident that if what we see on stage is clear to me, then the rest of the people in my world will understand it as well.

CONAN: Why don't you just have an interpreter in front, translating the English?

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Yeah, that becomes - I don't know. For me, I've never really liked watching an interpreted play in that way. I don't really like watching a captioned play or something like that. I want to see the truth of what's going on in an intellectual way, put into both languages happening simultaneously. Best thing to do? Come see the show. It's going to be on October 20th and October 21st. It's going to be 7:00, and it's going to be at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard.

CONAN: Let me ask you, Catherine Rush, what happened to this world that you describe in the play?

Ms. RUSH: In the play, we take, you know, we squeeze time to the climax we find of a big change that took place at the Vineyard, or on the Vineyard. You had the whaling community fall apart, and you had the farming community becoming less and less productive as people moved in for holidays and more off-islanders came in. Also, it changed the genetic pool. So things started to change. And as off-islanders came on, they brought all of their ideas. And for the first time, the community found themselves in conflict from those influences.

CONAN: In conflict on the issue of deafness.

Ms. RUSH: What we put - yeah, to some extent. What we show in the play is that everybody's getting along fine until this guy comes in and asks this question, can the deaf vote? And for the first time, people see themselves - identify themselves by a disability. And for the first time, the community feels a separateness from each other.

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Right. They feel we're different, all of a sudden. Prior to this question, you know, you had a deaf person and a hearing person, and they would live together to the point where they might forget who was hearing and who was deaf. But all of a sudden, this question comes up - can they vote? Everyone all of a sudden has to stop and think. All of a sudden, people are wearing labels for the first time. People are separating from others.

Ms. RUSH: And in the play - in the story of the play, in fact, two best friends - one deaf and one hearing - fight over the issue because the deaf man doesn't really want them to investigate this because, why? We've always voted. Why should we not vote? What's the point of finding out whether or not there's a law or there isn't? And his best friend says look, the law is the law. And if there is a law that says we are not allowed to vote, we need to know that because we'll be breaking the law. And these two best friends for decades all of a sudden are no longer friends over an issue that never was before.

CONAN: Don't tell us how it comes out. We'll have to go see the play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Catherine Rush and Adrian Blue are co-authors of the play This Island Alone. We'd also like to thank Alec Lev, who was Adrian Blue's interpreter. They all joined us from the studio at Audiolutions on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Thanks very much. Good luck with the play.

Ms. RUSH: Thank you very much.

Ms. BLUE: (Through interpreter) Thank you very much.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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