As a historian, I am always interested in new ways of bringing the past to the public. Visible Language, written by Mary Resing, does so in a unique way—presenting the controversy between oral education and sign language through a musical.
Set in 1893, Visible Language is the true story of the battle over founding a teacher’s college at the National Deaf-Mute College, which is now known as Gallaudet University. The key players in this battle, Edward Miner Gallaudet (played by Gallaudet faculty member Tom Baldridge) and Alexander Graham Bell, are well-known in the Deaf community today; and the historic controversy between them, the debate between oralism and manualism, lives on to this day.
Theatergoers will learn a great deal about Alexander Graham Bell through Visible Language. Although frequently seen as a proponent of the oral method exclusively, Bell was in fact able to use some sign language, and willingly conversed with adults in sign—though with children he preferred to speak, to improve their skills. In Visible Language the character of Alexander Graham Bell (played by Harv Lester) gives a lecture on Visible Speech that actually took place, in 1880, at Kendall Green’s own Chapel Hall, which is now the home of the Gallaudet University Museum. That year Bell received an honorary doctorate from the college—but ten years later the controversy over the teacher’s college began, and the relationship between Bell and Gallaudet suffered tremendously.
Visible Language also weaves in another story related to education, that of Helen Keller (played by Gallaudet graduate Miranda Medugno). Alexander Graham Bell was a great friend of the young Helen, and was indeed known to have been one of her teachers in what later became known as the Tadoma Method—teaching Deafblind individuals to read lips and speak by feeling vibrations on the face.
Mary Resing’s book is very faithful to Deaf history, but it does take a few liberties to enhance the storytelling on stage. For instance Helen did visit Kendall Green twice in her life, though not with Bell as shown in the play. Additionally, Helen’s method of communication with Anne Sullivan was fingerspelling rather than sign language, but in Visible Language the characters Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan (played by Sarah Anne Sillers) use tactile sign, which is what modern Deafblind people use, so that their dialog with each other can be seen by the audience.
Another historical adaptation in Visible Language—one that may surprise theatergoers—is the inclusion of a young African American character, presented as an Honors graduate of the college. Audience members familiar with the history of Gallaudet will likely recognize the name Andrew Foster, Class of 1954, who was the school’s first African American graduate—but they may not be aware that two other African Americans preceded him.
In a landmark decision in 1896, in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring racial segregation in public education were constitutional under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Up until then, black children had been educated on Kendall Green, and were not barred from applying to the college. So it was that in 1886, James Gilbert Jr. became the first student to receive the notation “Colored” (the term used then for black) in the alumni record. Gilbert was followed five years later by another African American student, Ennals Adams Jr. (his actual alumni card, with his name misspelled “Ennal,” can be seen here). In Visible Language, the character of Ennals Adams Jr. (played by Gallaudet graduate Aarron Loggins) appears as a rising star. In actual fact both Adams and Gilbert withdrew before graduation. Gilbert became a concrete worker, and Adams was one of the first deaf individuals to take the U.S. civil service exam, though he did not pass. Still, the inclusion of the historical character Ennals Adams Jr. in Visible Language serves as a dramatic reminder that Kendall Green was initially racially progressive, which was highly unusual during the period after the Civil War and before “separate but equal” took hold.
Staging this world premiere musical at Gallaudet University has rich historical resonance. Visible Language takes audiences into the compelling human stories behind the debate on signs versus speech in the very neighborhood where the argument broke out. The production brings together Deaf and hearing actors and off-stage creative team to present an often overlooked part of the school’s history to both Deaf and hearing audiences. From October 21 to November 16, 2014, inside Eastman Studio Theatre, pivotal real history will come alive again—in sign and song.
Meredith Peruzzi is the Interim Manager of the Gallaudet University Museum, and the curator of its first permanent exhibit, Gallaudet at 150 and Beyond. A native of the Washington DC area, she graduated from Gallaudet University in 2011 with University Honors. Her Capstone thesis, Gallaudet at 150: Chapter One, represented years of interest and work in the field of Deaf history, particularly the history of Gallaudet. She presented at the 150th Anniversary Symposium on the subject of Platt Skinner’s relationship with the founding of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf, and continues to conduct research in the field of Deaf history. Currently earning a Master’s in Applied History at George Mason University, she is a public historian committed to preserving and presenting the rich and complex history of deaf Americans.