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The ASL poetry performance makes our writer rethink even basic communication

Rochester Fringe Festival, Day 4: "Dangerous Signs" review 

The ASL poetry performance makes our writer rethink even basic communication

The first time I read poetry in Spanish I remember it required an adjustment. Since my brain was still translating the words into English, it didn’t seem like poetry at all to me. While American Sign Language is obviously not the same as spoken English, it never occurred to me that poetry in ASL would be any different than poetry that can be read or heard. After just a few minutes of “Dangerous Signs,” performed by RIT’sMasquerer’s Drama Club on Saturday afternoon at at the Little Theatre, I received a tutorial in ASL poetry that showed me how misinformed I was.

Rather than create like sounds as in spoken poetry, ASL communicators make poetry with consecutive hand shapes that look similar. Although it took me a minute to fully understand how this worked, as the show progressed I was able to see the connection between rhymes much more clearly. The company’s interpretation of“A Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes was particularly beautiful, as members of the troupe became a mass of human waves, undulating in synch to a steady rhythm. While we sometimes call dance another form of poetry, here I witnessed the opposite transpire in a truly graceful manner.

One of my favorite moments in the show occurred when members Troy Chapman and Jamal Jones interpreted “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley as the song played. While one man wore green gloves to accent his hands, the other chose red, and the two alternated places, standing one in front of the other so that it seemed as though the audience was watching a four-handed man. The duo poked fun at and pulled one another’s legs throughout the song, showing off the complementary dynamic between them.

This song, and every other work the company chose to highlight during the show, tied back to a theme of understanding and acceptance. Throughout the afternoon stories of bullying and prejudice due to race, language, or sexuality were told in order to convey that no matter who you are, you have a right to be respected by others and celebrated because of your individuality.

Although I live in Rochester, a city with one of the largest deaf populations per capita, I do not get the opportunity to see ASL communicators very often. Because of that, “Dangerous Signs” was a nice change of pace, and a fun experience as well. Each time I see deaf people communicate with one another, I always wonder just how many facial muscles I neglect to use on a daily basis. The people with whom I’m acquainted who use ASL are so consistently expressive, and because of this, seemingly more honest. If it wasn’t so effortless for us to just say things without the requirement of displaying much emotion, I wonder if we all wouldn’t be a little bit more honest with one another about how we feel.

It’s hard to believe that Sunday is already the last day of Fringe. At least I have “The Isle of Dogs” at Writers & Books at 7 p.m. to look forward to. What will you squeeze in before it all comes to an end?

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