03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deaf People Speak Out Against Hearing Actor Portraying Deaf Role

The New York Times reports on a controversy surrounding the New York Theater Workshop production of Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter whose central character John Singer is a deaf and mute man in the novel. Playwright Rebecca Gilman adapted the fictional work to the stage and included a spoken opening and closing monologue for Singer. Now deaf actors and activists are protesting the decision made by the director to cast a hearing man to play the part. Says Linda Bove, the deaf actress who is familiar to many from Sesame Street, "A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface." The director Doug Hughes feels that because the monologues are spoken, only a hearing actor would work for the part.

There are several issues raised by this incident. The first is the very limited roles available to the talented deaf actors in this country. We are familiar with Marlee Matlin, who starred in Children of A Lesser God and many episodes of The West Wing and other television shows. But her fame is balanced by the anonymity of the majority of deaf actors. There is an unacknowledged discrimination involved in not using deaf actors to play deaf roles, and this case is no exception.

The other stereotype here is the assumption that deaf actors can't speak. The normal education in the US involves extensive training in speech for deaf people. While not all will end up speaking in ways that might work on stage, so many can. The range of possibilities from hard of hearing to deaf allow for this possibility, but the decision to not allow a deaf person to speak might be seen as not allowing a black person to speak on the stage in the 19th century for fear they wouldn't be speaking standard English.

The director and playwright cite their artistic freedom to make the decisions they have. Fair enough, but artistic freedom when it impinges on the rights and repute of others has some limitations. We might imagine a playwright who decided to make a play in which Jews were all shown to be money-grubbing, stereotyped people with large, hooked noses and cast accordingly. While no one wants to limit even offensive decisions in theater, we also recognize that a vigorous and even rowdy protest against the play including a call to boycott it would be an appropriate response.

The New York Theater Workshop chose to do a play about deaf people. It shouldn't be surprised if deaf people turn out not to be the silent, passive, suffering deaf mute of Carson McCuller's story--itself an audist and ableist cliché and stereotype--but are vocal, angry critics of the production. After all, playwright Gilman chose to let Singer speak.