Any play from 1979 will inevitably seem dated in some respects to 2018 audiences, but Children of a Lesser God brings its own singular challenges. Mark Medoff’s drama about a Deaf woman and her relationship with a hearing teacher won a Tony Award for its original Broadway run, and the movie adaptation scored an Oscar for Marlee Matlin. But times have changed, and so has language. That’s where Alexandria Wailes comes in for director Kenny Leon’s current revival.
Director of Artistic Sign Language for the production, Wailes utilizes her background as a performer (she appeared on Broadway in Big River) to help the actors—including stars Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff—understand how to sign for audiences in the Studio 54 theatre.
“I’ve encouraged the actors to sign beginning from their backs,” Wailes explains through an interpreter. “It’s not just fingers and the palm of your hands—signing is very physical. If you sign very small, someone won’t be able to see you. It’s like projecting your voice. You’re using your whole body onstage and that takes practice, and that takes stamina and strength.”
Additionally, Wailes is responsible for finding a balance between clarity of expression and remaining true to the play’s period setting. Words and phrases once appropriate are no longer used, and ASL itself has morphed over the years just as any other language would.
“American Sign Language is a language in its own right, grammatically and syntactically,” she says. “So my job is to identify in the story that we’re telling what kind of signs best benefit what’s happening onstage at that moment. So it’s almost dramaturgical because I’m looking at these language choices and the signing choices.”
In some instances, Wailes has actors use historically accurate signs when they communicate with hearing characters. But when Deaf characters speak to one another, she has updated their language to something more contemporary, in part to ensure that Deaf audience members can follow along more easily.
“It is important to acknowledge the terminology and the history of the way people thought compared to the way people think now,” she says. “Some of it remains the same. Some of it has changed for the better. It’s about people educating themselves and being open and understanding that we’ve come a long way in 40 years.”