Love doesn’t need an audience or even a dress rehearsal, but sometimes it helps. Last night I sat through a dress rehearsal of Anna Garcia-Romero’s fabuloso play Paloma, which is playing at the National Hispanic Culture Center this weekend. The dress rehearsal was scheduled to acquaint the signed language interpreters with the production (tonight’s performance is signed by practicum students from the UNM Signed Language Interpreting Program).
That’s where I come in.
Earlier this year I met up with Linda Lopez McAlister, owner of Camino Real Productions and fellow Bareleña philosopher. That’s right – Barelas is a rockin’ barrio with TWO female philosophers in our ‘hood! Months ago I noticed Linda’s name on that OTHER social network –- what caught my eye was that we knew many of the same people in Albuquerque theater and media and in feminist philosophy circles. (These are pretty distinct worlds with not much crossover, in case you were wondering…) Curious, I sent Linda a message. After a few back-and-forths, we met up over yerba buena tea in mi casita to talk about philosophy and theater.
That was when I first learned of Paloma, a play about three NYU graduate students whose lives are forever altered by a terrorist attack. Paloma Flores, a nominal Catholic with family ties to Puerto Rico, falls in love with Ibrahim Ahmad, a Moroccan-American Muslim. Ibrahim’s friend Jared Rabinowitz, the grandson of a rabbi, provides legal and emotional support.
Let me just interject here that the play is A Must See, ok? Stop reading and get your tickets here. NOW.
The backdrop to the play is La Convivencia, the era in Spain when Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully. The theme of the play is love, with (you knew this was coming, right?) some philosophical overtones – the treatise El Collar de la Paloma (Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah in Arabic, Ring of the Dove in English) written by medieval philosopher Ibn Hazm de Cordoba is prominently featured.
Each scene is titled after a section of the treatise; in several scenes the characters read and discuss selections from the treatise. Ergo, public philosophy!
Last year I bemoaned the lack of philosophical texts available in American Sign Language to a colleague. When you teach philosophy to a minority language population, this is no small worry. I believe that philosophical classics should be available to my students in their native tongue; I also know that since ASL is not my first language (or even my second!) that I’m probably not the best person to make these translations.
That aside, my colleague and I discussed which work in the Western canon should be the first to be translated into ASL.
Ay-yi-yi -- the responsibility!
Little did I know that less than a year later I would be poring over an 11th century (C.E.) text written by a fairly obscure philosopher (to this Western canon trained analytic philosopher) and translating portions of it into ASL.
Ibn Hazm, your time has come!
Seriously, this highlights two concerns that are never far from my thoughts.
One is the lack of access that signing deaf people have to cultural texts and information in their native signed language. I’m all for bilingual deaf education, but I think there is something to the experience of taking in a text in one’s mother tongue that cannot be duplicated. I want this for all of my students.
The second worry is the way that (hearing) cultural knowledge is disseminated via signed languages. Often it is more a matter of circumstance and serendipity than long range planning – if I were planning to translate the corpus of philosophical texts into ASL, Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove would have never made it onto my list.
Yet I’m glad that signing Deaf folk in Albuquerque have access to it this weekend, and now that some of the translation work has been done, I will add The Ring of the Dove to the course reading list the next time I teach ancient and medieval philosophy at Gallaudet University.
Back to Paloma…
I have a longstanding passion for local theater. I can’t begin to tally up the hours I’ve spent in the wings and backstage, first as an Albuquerque Children’s Theater mom -- though hopefully not as a frightful stage mother! Later I racked up the hours right here in Barelas at Out ‘chYonda, the Filling Station, and the National Hispanic Culture Center.
In addition to my passion for theater, I believe in giving back to the community – I owe a debt to the UNM Signed Language Interpreting Program that I’ll never be able to repay (and in particular to the founder of that program, Dr. Phyllis Wilcox). I’ve combined these loves through volunteer supervision of practicum students.
Practicum students interpret local plays on shoestring budgets – labors of love that aim to break even, but often lose money. Paying a team of professional interpreters for these productions isn’t at all feasible. For me, the idea of paying interpreters before paying actors and stagehands is unconscionable. Ditto the idea that these plays aren’t accessible to the signing deaf community. I seek out opportunities where I can pair signed language interpreting students who are learning their craft with theatrical productions that don’t have the budget for interpreters. This means small, local production companies – we’re not talking The Lion King at Popejoy Hall!
Once the production is selected, I have a conversation or three with the producer and director. We talk about interpreter placement, advertising to the signing Deaf community, and what we need to make this a successful experience for all (scripts, access to rehearsals, lighting, lines of sight, etc). The producer, cast, and signing Deaf community need to be clear that this is a first and foremost a learning experience for the students. (People who complain get to deal with my wrath, which is not a pretty sight.) The other point is that the miniscule play production budget relieves the production from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandate of access, given the exemption based on cost.
In other words, without the students, there is no access.
But there’s more.
Good stage interpreting is an art. You can’t just find a pair of signed language interpreters, plop them on stage, and say “Go!” Interpreters need to study the script, watch how the actors move, learn the rhythms of the dialogue, adjust to the lighting, and capture the affect of each character. Since there are usually just two interpreters, each interpreter has several characters to emulate. Professional interpreters will spend hours rehearsing for the play, just as the performers do. Students -- at least the ones I supervise -- will spend at least as much time as the professional interpreters preparing for their assignments.
A play like Paloma, with its mix of languages and cultures and religions, is complicated to interpret. As an example, consider the word “pray”. In English, the word “pray” can be used to refer to an action performed by people from a variety of religious backgrounds. In American Sign Language, there is an iconic sign for prayer that most hearing people would easily identify – two palms pressed against each other, fingertips pointing up, elbows pointing out, arms held chest high.
That works pretty well for Christian prayer. But as my Muslim students have taught me, this is not the only sign for prayer. The word for Islamic prayer is different – it is two arms with bent elbows, hands held out with palms facing down, moving twice down towards the floor. The word for prayer often used in Judaism is yet another sign – this time hands are placed one atop the other with open palms facing the person and swaying slightly, as if davening. And that is just one word! (There are also regional and national sign language variations – my knowledge of signs related to Islam is influenced by both Jordanian and Saudi Arabian sign languages, and you’ll see this tonight at the interpreted performance of “Paloma”).
Paloma takes place in Spain and New York City. Cities have name signs. The sign for Albuquerque is the fingerspelled ASL alphabet letters A-L-B or A-L-B-Q, depending on who you ask. The sign for New York City is widely known here in the U.S. and is a bit of wordplay on the sign for subway. (Or is it the other way around?) Signs for Madrid, Toledo, and Granada are not commonly used in ASL, so the words are fingerspelled: M-A-D-R-I-D, for example.
I’m a stern taskmaster, which means I expect my students to do the research to find our how Deaf Madrileños sign their city's name. And guess what? They do the research! The preferred convention these days is to use the signs that locals use – think München instead of Munich and you’ve got the idea. Here’s a look at place name signs in LSE – Lengua de Signos Española, otherwise known as the native signed language of Spain.
Paloma is a play about love, but it is equally an act of love – the love of theater, love of a community, love of peace, and love between individuals – eros, philia, and agape.
The last three shows of Paloma in Albuquerque take place this weekend. Don’t miss it!