Sign Singing

Deaf West Theatre's Big River is a hands-on show

A sly spokesman for the under-represented, novelist Mark Twain broke some thick literary ground when he made a black character a sympathetic figure in his oft-debated classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The premise was simple: Why can't an outsider be at the center of a story?

In a twist of Twain-themed fate, a similar trend is being broken here, thanks to Hollywood-based Deaf West Theatre's stop in town. The group has reworked the 1985 musical Big River, based on Twain's classic. Like its Broadway predecessor, the show is set mostly on a raft, with large, open Twain novels as a backdrop, and follows two runaways -- Huck, escaping his drunken father, and Jim, a slave on the lam -- as they journey down the Mississippi River in the 1840s. But in this Big River, deaf and partially deaf actors -- typically relegated to only "deaf" characters in Hollywood and on Broadway -- are townsfolk, villains and, in Huck's case, the leading man.

"Big River was perfect for this," says Tyrone Giordano, who plays Huck, of the show's adaptation, "as it already addresses the issue of the outsider in society, and of seeing people differently because of a physical difference." As Giordano moves about the stage and signs, Dan Jenkins, who plays the voice of Huck, reacts almost instantly with corresponding speech and song. "A simple shift in the way a sign is made," says Giordano, "whether through a different facial expression, or different speed or direction of signing, can significantly alter the meaning of what's being said."

Different strokes: Tyrone Giordano and Michael 
McElroy.
Joan Marcus
Different strokes: Tyrone Giordano and Michael McElroy.

Co-lead Michael McElroy, the hearing actor who plays Jim, sings, speaks and signs throughout. During chorus numbers, the entire cast is singing or signing, creating a ballet of hand movement. Giordano notes that it can take a while for audience members to notice that some performers aren't speaking. When they realize it, he says, "it's a charged moment, where you can come away with the realization that American Sign Language is a true language, and not just a hand code."

A special symposium on how Big River can change attitudes toward race and ability will be presented at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, 713-520-0055. Free. Big River opens at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 13, and runs through Sunday, July 18. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit www.tuts.com. Free.

 
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