I waited a long time. Everyone had been talking about it. There wasn’t a lot of theater I hadn’t seen in New York at the time, but this was one of the shows I hadn’t seen. On a very limited engagement, it was hard to get tickets, but the lawyer for the director and choreographer was a friend of mine, and after some work and a few favors, I had my seat to a show that was unlike any other. I confess, I’d gotten so used to getting a seat for something so quickly, there was something nice about waiting.
My friend, the lawyer, had explained that there was a moment in the show that was like nothing he’d ever seen. But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. So I sat down, expecting to see something pretty cool. I watched a show I knew pretty well, but it was totally different. What I was watching was the Deaf West revival of Big River with music by the gospel music author, Roger Miller. Deaf West is a theater company that does original and revival productions in innovative ways with American Sign Language (ASL) so that all can enjoy the productions.
I can only imagine what those first experiences were like for folks watching the productions. For so many, theater was probably just not available in a real lived way. So for some it might have been like seeing something they didn’t even know they were waiting for. But as the production went on I became more and more engrossed. Even the chorus numbers were all in ASL. The perfect ballet of hands moving in unison was entrancing. And when there was harmony, different words being sung at the same time, the balanced rhythm of the hands was powerful to watch amid the swelling and churning musical score.
And then it happened. The moment. In one of the most rousing songs in the show so far, the lead snapped into action with a solo. Then as he repeated the refrain of the song, more people from the cast joined him. It got louder and louder with more and more of the cast. The kind of experience you go to the theater to see, to be overwhelmed by was gaining power, was gaining velocity, and then…it stopped. The music, the singing all stopped. All except for the signing. All anybody to could hear in the theater was the sound of the actors’ hands. And it gives me chills even today.
There isn’t much a lot of us wait for anymore. Sometimes there is a payoff. But sometimes there isn’t. In these moments, I try to imagine on a scale a little bigger. I try to remember what it might be like to wait a lifetime for a single sublime experience I never knew I might have. I try to focus on what is essential for that experience: a way of communicating that hasn’t been tried. And I try to remember the silent, deafening moment when unified gestures were all that anybody could see, were all that mattered to any of us. And I try to wait…for the light to shine again.
And may it ever be so,
Rev. T. J.