by Leta Tremblay · August 21, 2015
Mark Murray | Daniel Winters
The curtain speech was over and the lights had come up on an empty chair in the middle of the room. A woman in black stood against the stage right wall. Silence. We waited. In silence.
Eventually… a bell rang. And Tim emerged to sit in the chair. He said hello. With his hands. In American Sign Language (ASL).
So begins Mark Murray’s CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) at The White Box at 440 Studios as part of the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. The play is a solo piece written and performed by Murray while his ASL Interpreter, Samantha Kuperberg, signs for deaf audience members. She is the woman in black stage right.
Not that we spent the next 45 minutes in silence by any means. Using a combination of spoken English and ASL, Murray (as Tim) shares with us the story of his experience growing up with deaf parents. He recounts his realization on the playground that not everyone’s parents are deaf, memories of riding in the car with his dad and pretending that he also couldn’t hear in order to avoid a speeding ticket, and frustration with the challenge of communicating and connecting to his parents. It was this aspect, this inability to communicate and connect with one’s parents, that was of particular interest to me. Because it is so universal.
Tim expresses a deep desire to know his parents. The information that he does have and is able to share is deeply poignant. As I listened to his story unfold with great empathy, I found myself drawn in and aware on an emotional level of my own difficulties knowing my parents. I’ve heard it said that we carry our parents’ trauma with us in our own life. This can be a terrible burden to bear and one that affects so many of us.
Murray and his director Lindsey Leonard have done a good job of balancing these serious moments with more humorous ones as well. The play rolls, romps, and glides like a dance as Murray brings a whole cast of characters to life on stage. Some of the most engaging storytelling were conversations between Tim (using words and sign) and his father (using sign only). Hearing audience members had no trouble following the conversation that struck a perfect balance of authenticity and theatricality.
Kuperberg’s dancing hands and amazing facial expressions added another brilliant visual element to the experience and served as a reminder that most theatre is greatly inaccessible to whole groups of people. Rarely have I seen an ASL interpreter on stage offering the deaf community an outlet to enjoy the work. It’s clear that Murray’s company, Two Hands Productions, strives to create this opportunity.
The most successful solo shows strive to put the audience in someone else’s shoes. Murray’s quest to understand his parents’ experience does just that reminding us of the shared challenge of bridging that generational divide and also of our own privilege to live in a world where we can easily communicate with the people around us. As Tim’s friend Rebecca wisely points out; "None of us knows what anyone else goes through. All we can do is ask, listen, and hope to have some glimmer of understanding."