In the foreword to Whispers of a Savage Sort and Other Plays About the Deaf American Experience Raymond Luczak sets out his basic purposes in creating the book.
As a Deaf playwright, I feel even more obligated to insure that my characters in a Deaf milieu are much more than cardboard cutouts or agitprops to support any particular political agenda. I did not want to preach. I felt it much more useful instruct subversively through the guise of entertainment. I also wanted to aim for a more universality of my Deaf characters so that hearing audience members uninformed about deafness could still connect to the people on stage and see beyond their ears and hands.
As straightforward as these purposes seem to be, they can be a pretty tall order. One of the things that Whispers of a Savage Sort succeeds in is giving hearing readers and those who are deaf but not members of the Deaf community is a sense of why it may be a contentious issue that the author should care what they think at all.
One of the characteristics of any group who has been oppressed and is now seeking identity and power of its own is the tendency to turn about and stigmatize those who do not live up to its own sense of what constitutes identity. As many African American writers know, the "Am I Black Enough For You" question continually hovered above then- heads in the twentieth century. If Luczak's plays truly reflect Deaf community experiences, those who are deaf or hard of hearing might well substitute the word Deaf for Black.
Snooty, the first of the four plays in Whispers of a Savage Sort, is also the earliest of the plays, and introduces readers to the youngest group they will encounter in this volume - seventh graders in a hearing impaired resources classroom at a hearing school. What strikes the reader on the very first page is the extent to which the play as a written document is really only the skeleton of the play as performed. It also reinforces the extent to which shared cultural experiences make the visualization of such a performance richer in the reader's mind. As the "Staging Considerations" make clear, though ASL is the main language to be used the characters range in varying degrees of deafness from completely hearing to hard of hearing and SEE (Signing Exact English) to Deaf and ASL using. This functions as something of an Apartheid system in the classroom depending upon the particular characters involved. While the words of the characters and the stage directions constantly remind us that this caste system is in place, it is something whose full impact would only be realized by viewing Snooty as a performance. These "Staging Considerations" serve to prepare us not only for Snooty but for a Weltanschauung that pervades all of the plays.
The action of the play revolves around Michael, a hard of hearing youth who is thrust into the brutal world of a class of ASL students. To escape, Michael becomes a somewhat vengeful Walter Mitty while at the same time trying to prove himself to the class bullies. Luczak uses lighting changes to signal transitions between Michael's two worlds. Anyone who ever thought childhood was for the innocent will have that illusion dispelled in "Snooty."
Readers unfamiliar with the Deaf community who want a less violent introduction, may prefer to begin with Love in My Veins, a play that follows the relationship between Hugh and Mindy. Hugh is deaf, but comes from a hearing family, and has always felt that he has never quite fit in anywhere. Mindy has grown up in a Deaf family with a strong sense of Deaf community. When they first meet Hugh is wearing a hearing aid and speaking. Mindy has him put away the hearing aid and begins teaching him ASL. Both find something in the other that has been missing from their lives; they quickly fall in love and marry, despite objections from their parents.
The remainder of the play is an exploration of how their relationship deteriorates as a result of their inabilities to overcome the cultures that they come from. In this respect, Love in My Veins resembles the play about interracial marriage that begins in love and then declines because of the realities of living in a prejudicial society. While Hugh has faults, including a certain rigidity (he has to fold up his socks on the beach before he can run into the water), Mindy is afraid of doing anything to offend the Deaf community that enshrouds her life. This begins with her refusal to have a child out of fear that it may be hearing, and the situation declines from there. Love in My Veins has the broadest emotional appeal of the four plays in volume.
The title play Whispers of a Savage Sort is in many ways Hugh and Mindy put into the context of a Deaf community. Gus, the lead mail character, is hard of hearing and, like Hugh, can both speak or sign; thus, he is the target of the Deaf community, despite the fact that his wife Darcy is Deaf and Gus has bent over backwards to support them. Mindy has transposed into Nan, a culturally insecure gossip who finds reasons target Gus. While the violence among the boys in Snooty was physical, the violence in Whispers is emotional and psychological. A chorus of Rumors move throughout the plan fanning the winds of hearsay to the point of paranoia and contributing to the destruction of relationships.
Despite the fact that all three plays deal with the disastrous affects of intolerance within the Deaf community, each one also ends with some sense that there is hope and that relationships can be redeemed. In the case of Hugh and Mindy, this realization comes when there is little time left to change, but the other two plays offer the possibility of, if not new beginnings, at least better roads to travel ahead.
If Whispers of a Savage Sort were to find itself in a college or even high school curriculum, perhaps the play that would be the most fun to perform is Doogle. In fact, if sit-com producers got a hold of it, they could conceivably have a field day. Doogle is a phenomenon somewhere between intuition and the theologian Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, that allows some degree of mental communication between members of the Deaf community who use ASL. As one of the characters explains it:
Doogle is just collective mind. We instinctively know when one of us is hurt badly, and when one of us is deliriously happy with good news. We are a big family with one mind.
Doogle is set in an unspecified high school and, in a certain sense, is much ado about nothing. On another level, though, it raises issues that merit further exploration. Chief among these is the impact of various modes of communication. The issue over cochlear implants is well known, but as Luczak states in his foreword "when we examine the larger issue of what it means to be Deaf, we must examine how the forces or technology, particularly of those that are Internet- and mobile-based are reshaping the Deaf community."
As political philosopher Amartya Sen notes in Identity and Violence, a sense of identity can coldly exclude many people just as it warmly embraces others. The notion that in trying to create a cultural identity those who have been expressed and excluded become gatekeepers themselves is certainly not a new concept. It has been played out in African American, feminist, Latino and many other communities. Because of the seminal importance of modes of communication for deaf people, achieving a sense of identity has its own peculiar traps. In each of the plays in Whispers of a Savidge Sort, Luczak explores some aspect of this problem as it affects deaf people and the Deaf community. Luczak's portrayal of the problem is sure to raise some blood pressure on both sides of the aisle, but that is what plays that probe sensitive issues do. By laying bare the infighting among members or would-be members of the Deaf community, Luczak is providing an eye opening experience for both the hearing who thought of the Deaf community as monolithic and the Deaf community for airing its dirty as well as its clean laundry.
Recently several university instructors put a notice out on a professional listserv asking for recommendations of plays related to disability. While to some in the Deaf community, the term disability is a cultural shibboleth, Whispers of a Savage Sort and Other Plays About the Deaf American Experience is definitely a volume that should be on the list. In fact, it should be on the bookshelf of every college drama department and community theater right next to Victoria Ann Lewis' groundbreaking Beyond Victims and Villains. Like that collection, it is drama by, for, and about a group of whose points of view are embarrassingly under-represented in American drama.