Julius Clark knows good theater when he sees it, and watching his 3-year-old daughter Alexis saving a cardboard house from orange plastic-bag flames rated his highest praise.
"On a scale of one to 10, I give it 10 and a half, two and a half thumbs up, Must See TV!" said the 41-year-old Baltimore resident.
That said, the best part for Clark was seeing how Alexis has gone from a shy little girl to an outgoing, active member of her class for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Gwynns Falls Elementary.
More than 100 hearing-impaired students who receive services from Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Interagency Support Services had a chance to express their talents and learn more about deaf arts yesterday at the office's annual Deaf Fest, held for the first time at Center Stage.
"A lot of deaf culture and signing is expressive," says Pat Bangs-Wilson, an educational associate for the city schools and co-director of the 10-year-old event. "It goes hand-in-hand with performing arts."
Of course, not all those in attendance are destined for stage stardom, so the day was designed primarily to celebrate deaf culture and encourage students to believe in their abilities, whatever they choose to do.
Performances and workshops seemed like a natural extension of the theater's residency program, which took a Center Stage staff person and deaf actor Warren Snipe to Gwynns Falls once a week for 10 weeks this school year. In that time, the children wrote and prepared a play about the jobs deaf children can grow up to have - from firefighters in red plastic hats to weather forecasters, represented by dancing clouds.
"We can do anything," was the refrain spoken and signed after each segment.
"I have a bunch of hams [in class]," says J.T. French, who teaches the hearing-impaired third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Gwynns Falls. "They're very visual and used to moving their bodies to communicate."
Older students who are part of hearing-impaired classes at other city schools, including Chinquapin Middle, Lois T. Murray Elementary, George W.F. McMechen High, Carver Vocational-Technical High and Central Career Center at Briscoe, created their own performances. Some mimed, some rapped. Others signed along to the song "Circle of Life," and one did a very accurate Michael Jackson impersonation.
The event also gave the students, ranging from pre-school to high school, a chance to see professional actors use pantomime, facial expressions and American Sign Language to create theater. With minimal props, the Lanham-based group Road Signs, performed poetry, songs, original skits and fairy tales including "Little Red Riding Hood."
The actors say they hope their work inspires the hearing-impaired students who see them, but also shows those who can hear what deaf actors are capable of.
"It's nice to show we are just as normal as anyone else," says the group's co-director, Jennifer Perlis.
Shanika Brooks, a junior at Carver High School, enjoyed the group's signing of a Mariah Carey song, "Can't Take That Away," in a skit about bullies.
"It had a nice theme," said Brooks, who is deaf in one ear and has been coming to Deaf Fest since she was in second grade. She says she uses acting skills when she interacts with children in her in vocational childcare classes.
As the day concluded with hands-on workshops in creative movement, costumes and mask-making, Clark talked about how much his daughter has found her own personality with help from the city school's program.
"By the time Alexis turns 18," he said, "she's going to be a force to be reckoned with."