Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Deafness and Dominance: Analyzing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Production of to Kill a Mockingbird

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Deafness and Dominance: Analyzing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Production of to Kill a Mockingbird

Article excerpt

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2011 production of To Kill a Mockingbird offers complicated ways to think about characters' relationships to justice, entitlement, and community. By casting noted Deaf actor Howie Seago as Bob Ewell and reconsidering the character's language use, the production exploits the gap between the playscript and the audience members' interpretations. (1) The casting allows for both gestural and verbal languages in the courtroom, thereby creating a conspicuous interval in the courtroom scene. This layered language usage allows audience members to witness an "open space lying between ... two parts of the same thing; a gap, opening." (2) Any production of To Kill a Mockingbird offers a sinister version of Ewell, certainly. However, Seago uses his character's hearing status and language usage as "intervening portion [s] of something," advancing Ewell's violent agenda in opportunistic ways that expose how marginalization operates in Maycomb. (3) Seago's iteration of Bob Ewell and the performance of Susannah Flood as Mayella Ewell offer additional interpretative possibilities for audience members. The pair's use of home sign, a shared gestural language, offers another vector for onstage characters to see the abuse within the Ewell home--thereby challenging the Ewells' respectability within the courtroom. However, their language usage also clarifies Mayella's resentment of and resistance to her father. Through Seago and Flood's characters' spoken and signed dialogue, this production creates a vital new space to understand the damning and restorative power of language and community.

OSF, a much-awarded Shakespeare Festival, had a long-standing tradition of diverse casts prior to Howie Seagos hiring in 2009. (4) Able to perform in spoken English, American Sign Language (ASL), or a modified ASL, Seago offers a number of linguistic opportunities for his characters. Seagos linguistic flexibility becomes central to the productions exploration of characters' perceived respectability and, as a result, of their deemed credibility. Such credibility is at stake in the accusation that Mayella was raped, a claim that dooms Tom Robinson. Director Marion McClinton cast hearing actor Susannah Flood as Mayella Ewell, (5) established in this production as a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults). (6) Flood's performance recuperates Mayella, a character frequently demeaned and discounted within the text and in literary scholarship. This Mayella's linguistic affiliation with her father undermines her respectability within the court, as her gestures paradoxically reveal both her father's exploitation and a means of her rebellion. With these casting choices in place, audience members are asked to consider characters that navigate multiple vectors of identity, including those that are racial, gendered, linguistic, or class-based. Susannah Flood speaks to this navigation, reporting that "the director was interested in the idea that two minority groups would have more possibilities for contention because they are both disenfranchised. They're slightly more resentful of the other rather than making it a clear story between Blacks and Whites." (7) The additional identities performed by Seago and Flood--whose Mayella is confirmed as an incest survivor in this production--unsettle easy notions about how Maycomb citizens understand, implement, and are subject to justice. The dramatically central Maycomb court is ostensibly where citizens voice their narratives and where juries evaluate speakers' respectability and credibility. The Ewells' gestural language derails this process, both enabling more complex negotiations between the Ewells and the court and resulting in unexpected leverage for Mayella. This paper focuses on how this production stages these negotiations.

Setting the Stage: Bodies and Language

The OSF production team's casting and stage design reinforce the range of perspectives within the play. The decision to cast Seago and to stage the Ewells' signed communication allows the pair to have both public and private interactions during the trial. …

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