Deaf student stars in Pittsburgh Playwrights production
Aaliyah Sanders has been deaf since birth.
She has also been acting in school productions since the fourth-grade.
But being cast in a professional play was not on her radar.
“No. I never even thought of it, not in a professional play,” Aaliyah said through an interpreter. “I never thought I would be picked.”
Aaliyah, 16, landed one of the lead roles in the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of “Savior Samuel.” The sophomore at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Edgewood plays Essie, the teenage daughter of a family trying to survive in the Midwest around 1877. Essie becomes pregnant, and the identity of the baby’s father is a mystery.
The play was written by local playwright Mark Clayton Southers and is being produced for the first time. “Savior Samuel” officially opened Thursday at the Trust Arts Education Center on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Downtown. It runs through March 16.
“Savior Samuel” director Monteze Freeland said even though the character of Essie is deaf, he wasn’t initially sure that the role called for a deaf actress.
“In the beginning, when I first read the play, even when we thought of preliminary casting, it never crossed my mind, because I didn’t think that it was going to be an option,” said Freeland. “I guess I just didn’t believe that it could happen.”
Eventually, Freeman called the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and was told they had someone in mind for the part. Freeman hoped she was good.
“And she was,” he said. “I just treat Aaliyah like everyone else in the cast with the same respect and the same expectations as well.”
The expectations are great for Aaliyah, who is required to scream, vomit and conjure up strong emotions to express the anguish of a lonely, young pregnant girl struggling to communicate with her parents on the Kansas frontier without the help of sign language. She said her own life experiences have helped her to identify with the character of Essie.
“Sometimes, it is hard to communicate with hearing people,” Aaliyah said. “Hearing people don’t understand deaf people. They don’t know about what it’s like not to be able to hear and how they have to use facial expression and body language in order to communicate.”
In order to communicate with the director and other members of the cast, Aaliyah is accompanied at rehearsals by interpreter Cathy Morgan. But she will not have an interpreter during the performances. The cast and crew have put in place a system of visual cues to let her know when to enter and react during a scene.
When she is backstage and close to going on set, she looks for a cue light that has been set up specifically for her. The light goes on one minute before it’s time for her to enter the stage and goes off when it’s time for her to come in. Once on stage, the other actors will give her gesture cues so that she knows when to respond or react to what they are saying.
“It could be a gesture as simple as scratching my nose,” said actor Wali Jamal, who plays Essie’s father in the show. “She knows to look for it, but the audience doesn’t know.”
Jamal described Aaliyah as an extremely capable actress.
“Oh my God, she’s so amazing. She’s very astute and knows emotion. She’s a natural actress. She just is,” Jamal said.
For her part, Aaliyah said she wants to explore acting as a career and that the entertainment world needs more deaf actors.
“When I was in fourth grade, I was watching the Disney Channel on television, and I saw the actors on there, their facial expressions, their body language, and I felt like it was more connected to the deaf community,” she said. “We need more deaf actors, because we need to have people understand about deaf culture.”
Freeland said Aaliyah has a future in the acting business but that the business needs to change.
“If playwrights begin to write for all types of people, if directors get up the gumption to hire all types of actors, if producers put programming within their seasons to be very inclusive to different types of actors, I think that anyone can have a career. If we create the work for it,” Freeland said. “We have to open our minds just like my mind was opened to this possibility as well.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].