Monday, August 4, 2008

Israel Highlight: An Appreciation of Sight and Sound

Now that I've returned to the world of the normal in every sense (relief!) I can begin to reflect on our journey to the Holy Land, as I start to edit my 1,300 photos. Friends ask what the best parts of the trip were, and there were many, but perhaps the most striking could have occurred anywhere in the world.

It did occur in the ancient port city of Jaffa, in a warehouse in a rather unimproved light industrial area at a place called Nalaga'at Center, which consists of two restaurants and a playhouse. Sounds pretty normal so far, but "sounds" and "normal" were central and not what you think.

Our group had rented out the entire Cafe Kapish for a delicious dinner before an evening of theater. But this eatery is staffed entirely by deaf people, and to order, it is our job to communicate with them. The fare begins with bowls of appetizers--hummus, fresh pita, chopped salads--watiting at the table, and a choice of entrees, either fish or vegetarian. Each table has a whiteboard slate, in case you can't sign or otherwise express yourself using pointing to the menu and your hands. The food was plentiful and excellent, and at the conclusion of the meal, customers paid the tab by sending a table representative up to the cash register.

Then we received our tickets for Nalaga'at Theatre's "Not by Bread Alone," a production by eleven deaf and blind actors. Yes--both deaf and blind. As we entered, behind a filmy curtain the actors stood--four women and five men--dressed in baker's aprons and toques, behind tables kneading loaves of bread. As the play progressed through scenes depicting their lives and feelings about normal events such as love, marriage, and family, they continued the baking process, placing their loaves in pans, leaving them to rise, putting them into on-stage ovens, and finally, removing the hot bread and, at the play's
conclusion, inviting the audience on stage to meet them and consume the product of their efforts.

Two of the actors had lost their hearing after they had gained speech, and so were able to say their lines in that pinched voice of those who only remember the mechanics of talking. The others communicated via a narrator at side-stage who spoke for them in Hebrew. All the dialog was simultaneously presented by a sign-language interpreter, with superscript captioning in both Ararbic and English. In order for the actors to find their places throughout the show, guides dressed in black escorted them as they moved, one actor pushing a baby carriage, another swinging on a suspended swing, others dancing together, finally concluding with a wedding.

The content was illuminating, because one seldom recognizes or appreciates the complete isolation and yearning for connection that those removed from sensory input endure. One of the actors described holding her new
baby niece, and realizing that she would never see the child. Another described waiting and waiting to be touched, feeling abandoned until finally the expected helper arrived. A third told of his yearning to find a wife, to experience the companionship of marriage.

When the play ended and the audience provided a standing ovation the actors would not see, their guides applauded into their hands, mimicking our response. Then we were invited onstage. I admit to feeling a bit apprehensive, shy, intimidated, when approaching, though I certainly did want to thank the performers. Each stood with a guide; audience members took the actor's hand or hugged him, and spoke; the interpreter fed the comment into the actor's hand. Though most did not speak, they could sign a response that the guide relayed. The process is more complex to describe than its actuality. After all, the message of the show and our interactions was that these people smile, think and plan like everyone else. But from a different, dark and silent space.

We did not eat at the other restaurant associated with the Nalaga'at Theater, "Blackout--Restaurant in the Dark," staffed entirely by blind waiters. THAT would have been difficult, but, like the entire experience, eminently worth it. Memorable. Enlightening.

The Nalaga'at Theater's director, a woman whose name I don't know, came out after the performance and explained that the troupe has toured the world, including earning a standing ovation at Rockefeller Center in New York. She described putting together the play, the second production following the actors' very personal stories in "Light is Heard in Zig Zag." The amount of patience and practice in working with actors who cannot see or hear must be incredible. The amount of gratitude we, who have our senses intact, should feel for those very basic sources is inestimable.

As you can probably tell, this was not the usual touristy visit to Israel.

Photos: Above left, before the performance, taken from my seat, the actors knead bread behind a filmy curtain. Above right, Cafe Kapish, where the staff is deaf.

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