See Richard struggle to keep his family intact. See Jane rebel. See Dick wear Mother’s clothes. See Sally defy Father by learning sign language. See Spot talk. Silly Spot!
See the world premiere of “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally," which uses the famous children’s books to explore the controversy over how to teach communication skills to deaf children, through March 1 at Baltimore Center Stage.
Playwright Noah Diaz has drawn on his experience working from 2014 to 2017 as a sign language interpreter in Omaha’s public schools. Pupils who were hard of hearing were taught to speak by mastering the “Dick and Jane” primers, which, Diaz said, can be useful for practice pronouncing consonants and diphthongs.
Learning how to speak clearly enough to be understood can be difficult for children unable to detect the changes in volume or inflection and the million other nuances of spoken conversation.
“I was struck by how isolated my pupils were outside of the classroom," Diaz said.
“Eighty-five or 90 percent of them had parents or siblings who did not know sign language. My students’ only outlet for conversation was with other deaf kids at the school or with their interpreters. When you are in middle school and your only friend is your adult interpreter, that is not a terribly easy life.”
Though the Dick and Jane books later were criticized as conformist and dull, the series was at one time wildly popular — perhaps because it presented an idealized depiction of white, middle-class suburban life in the mid-20th century.
Diaz’s play knocks that rosy picture helter-skelter. Among other things, he rearranges the original family configuration. In the books, Sally is Dick and Jane’s little sister.
But as Diaz imagines her, Sally is Dick’s daughter — though the adult Dick goes by the more formal “Richard.”
Now in early middle age, Richard is wrestling with wrenching problems:
His wife has died sometime before the play begins. He himself is suffering from an ailment whose symptoms he desperately attempts to minimize to avoid further worrying his already traumatized children.
Jane has been estranged from her brother for decades but is about to return home to visit.
Richard’s teenage son, Dick Jr., mourns the loss of his mother by wearing her shoes, scarves and skirts. Richard pressures his deaf daughter, Sally, to assimilate to the hearing population by learning to speak, but she prefers sign language. Her best friend is Spot the talking dog.
At the center of “R&J&D&S” is a longstanding and contentious debate about how deaf children should be educated.
Pro-speech advocates believe that literacy is key to future success, and that deaf people who can talk will receive opportunities not afforded to their signing counterparts. Researcher Ann E. Geers presented a study in the July 2017 issue of the journal Pediatrics that concludes that deaf children with cochlear implants who learned how to speak outperformed their signing counterparts on standard reading tests.
Though experts say there is a close relationship between writing and speaking, there is almost no overlap between written language and sign language.
“There is a common misconception among people who can hear that sign language is a word-for-word translation of spoken language,” Diaz said. “It’s not. It has its own syntax, it’s own metaphors and its own meaning. There is no written language equivalent for sign language.”
But sign language’s supporters argue that a system of hand signals is a fluid and elegant communications tool that comes more naturally to most deaf children than speech does. (There are several sign languages, just as there are many different spoken languages.)
Signing’s champions say that depriving hard of hearing kids of exposure to sign language can hamper the development of critical language skills. University of Rochester researcher Wyatte C. Hall wrote in the May 2017 issue of the Maternal and Child Health Journal that “a fundamental and irreversible biological impact — on the brain and on healthy development — appears to occur when an accessible language is not provided by a certain early time period.”
Even when deaf children’s brains develop normally, Diaz said, linguistic dexterity is frequently — and inaccurately — used in this culture as a rough measure of intelligence. Without even being aware of their own bias, hearing people might unconsciously assume that people who are deaf are also quite literally dumb.
Why would anyone want to speak if the consequence was to be routinely underestimated?
As Diaz put it:
“All children need to communicate with the world around them and they need to be communicated to. Most deaf kids will find more success with sign language, though I know plenty of deaf folks who are perfectly happy speaking.
"I advocate for whatever deaf people decide is best for them. It’s an individual choice that cannot be made by anyone other than deaf people themselves.”
For instance, Treshelle Edmond, the actress playing Sally, was 18 months old when she was diagnosed with “a severe to profound” hearing loss.
“Without my hearing aid, I cannot hear at all,” Edmond said. (The interview at Center Stage was conducted as a face-to-face conversation. A sign-language interpreter was present but was used infrequently.)
Edmond perhaps faces the most difficult acting challenge in the show, since she must portray her character convincingly while alternating between two languages. Early in the play, Sally communicates with her family by speaking. After her Aunt Jane arrives, she learns to sign. For the rest of the play, Sally switches back and forth, sometimes from line to line.
“I can relate to Sally,” Edmond said. “I had to speak in order to communicate with my family. She is going through the same thing.
“It wasn’t my parents’ fault that they didn’t know how to raise a deaf child. Back then, there wasn’t enough education for people in that situation. Today, there’s no escaping it.”
Edmond first gained national exposure in 2015 when she signed “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” during Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix. Since then, she has performed twice on Broadway: first in “Spring Awakening” and subsequently in “Children of a Lesser God.”
Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra said Edmond won the role of Sally within minutes of starting the audition.
“It was so clear that Treshelle would take the part,” Ybarra said, “that I wrote down, ‘straight to wardrobe.’”
After “Richard & Jane” leaves Baltimore in early March, it will transfer to The Playwrights Realm in New York, which is co-producing the show. That will mark the off-Broadway debut for the 26-year-old Diaz, who is studying for his master’s degree in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
Audiences nationwide might soon become familiar with Diaz’s work. He has been commissioned to write new plays for such prestigious venues as California’s La Jolla Playhouse, New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club and Omaha’s Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Ybarra first read the script for “Richard & Jane” a few years ago when she was putting together a reading series of works by emerging Latino and Latina playwrights. (Diaz is of white and Mexican descent.)
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“There were a couple of scripts I couldn’t stop thinking about,” Ybarra said. “Noah’s was one of them. When I first read it, I really identified with the character of Sally and the way she’s been asked to assimilate and conform.”
The more times Ybarra read Diaz’s script, the more themes resonated with her: the tense but loving relationship between Richard and Jane, the way habits and personality traits can get passed down from generation to generation, even the bonds that form between people and pets.
But when Ybarra announced Center’s 2019-20 season last March, she could not have anticipated that play’s theme of a parent’s illness would develop a personal meaning for her.
“My father had been struggling with prostate cancer,” she said. "Over the fall, he took a really bad turn for the worse. He died in October.
"In Noah’s play, Dick Junior puts on his mother’s clothes and shoes so he can be close to her after she’s gone. I showed up for the first day of rehearsal wearing my father’s cologne.”
IF YOU GO
“Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally” runs at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., from Feb. 6 through March 1. Tickets cost $20-$74. For details, call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.