As you sit down in the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, imagine this concept as you watch the performer: an argument between the left hand and the right hand done completely in silence. All you hear are the sounds of street performers and muffled chatter from people on the sidewalk paired with inevitable sounds from the body movement of the performer.
At first, it’s bizarre. Then, you become immersed in the activity on stage and the various noises fade into the background. That’s when you become part of a world where theater and poetry are experienced in complete silence. The ASL Literature Slam nights, hosted every first Friday of the month, offer this somewhat rare opportunity to the community.
Furthermore, these performances, done solely in American Sign Language (ASL), offer a necessary space for the Long Beach deaf community.
“A lot of the events that go on in Long Beach don’t attract the actual Long Beach deaf community as much as going to the Block at Orange, going to San Diego, or going to Northridge,” said Maxwell Bradney, Shakespeare Company interpreter, interpreter coordinator, and host of ASL Literature Slam. “There are bigger deaf populations there and those are longer-standing things.”
On the most recent slam night on Oct. 5, the audience consisted mostly of ASL students. Bradney wasn’t able to secure any performers other than himself, however, with this dynamic, it became a casual night with more spoken language than Bradney said his ideal evening would have.
“My vision is to have a list of performers, all ready to go, to stand up and perform, then have an open section where we hang out, we can chat, get in touch with each other and hopefully build [audience member’s] courage to stand up and perform too.”
But without a list of performers and with a mostly hearing audience, Bradney performed two poems, one by Mary Beth Miller and one original piece, in ASL. ASL is a language all its own, where the rhythm and flow are felt like hearing a poem read aloud. It’s a language that requires theatrics—facial expressions are used for grammar and tone— making ASL theater a world of its own.
Bradney studied ASL theater at CSU Northridge after completing the Golden West interpreter program and working as an interpreter for two years. He’s been using ASL for half his life when he and his dad began taking classes, Bradney then 13 years old. Though his father was losing his hearing, ASL never became a necessary form of communication for them. His dad stopped taking ASL courses, but Bradney never did.
“[I was drawn to] the beauty of it, the fun, what you can do with the language, I’d never seen the stuff you can do like that in other languages, it was so animated,” Bradney said. “Having to do that kind of thing, I think helped break me out from the shell that I was in. So, I kind of also used it as a tool to really become more comfortable with myself.”
Apart from the poems Bradney performed, he also acted out single words—easier to comprehend for those with little ASL knowledge—like crab, using the sign for “C” to create claws, etc.
“When you personify something in ASL, you can actually be the thing. So if I want to tell a story about bowling, I can actually become the bowling ball and become the bowling pin, and show that whole interaction,” Bradney said.
As the event continues, he would like it to reach a point where each performance transitions into an open mic, one where people could even be comfortable doing free-flow, ASL slam poetry. However, with mostly ASL learners in the crowd on Oct. 5, the open session turned into a game where Bradney gathered enough brave volunteers—some well-versed in ASL and others only slightly—to take an audience-suggested hand shape, like a fist, and take turns making signs with it.
“The game is a good idea, it’s fun. That’s like my back pocket trick,” Bradney said. “Because nobody wants to stand up, nobody does, but if we’re playing a game it’s different.”
The level of comfort among the intimate audience grew gradually, just as planned. Eventually, a sense of fellowship spread throughout the small theater—a connection Bradney knows he could create with the Long Beach deaf community if he can get more in attendance.
“We’re providing communication access. We’re providing an art form that is often left undone and can be fun, and hopefully it brings the deaf community together more,” Bradney said. “There are creative people in the deaf community that can do wonderful things and I want them to start coming.”
So for anyone who wants to help build a culture of ASL events in Long Beach, aspires to converse with others in the deaf community and share their art, or has an interest in experiencing this art form, the ASL Literature Slam occurs every first Friday of the month at Long Beach Shakespeare Company in Bixby Knolls.
Anyone interested in getting on the list of performers should email firstname.lastname@example.org.