Children of a Lesser God took Broadway by storm in 1980 winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Phyllis Frelich) and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (John Rubinstein). This groundbreaking work - later adapted into a successful movie propelling Marlee Matlin onto the world stage and into the arms of an Academy Award - introduced Deaf Culture and American Sign Language (ASL) to a wide audience.
The play was also directly (or indirectly) responsible for bringing many young professionals to the field of deaf education as either speech and language pathologists or classroom teachers - I am one of those individuals who is one degree of separation away from its direct influence. This play about the romance between a deaf woman and a hearing man who clash over communication modalities helped define the course of my life. It is thought provoking, challenging and a major step in opening a dialogue between divergent linguistic and cultural communities.
Riding the wave of that juggernaut was original Broadway cast member Lewis Merkin in the role of Orin Dennis. It was our indescribable honor to welcome Lewis to our classroom to share his experiences with the show, life in the theater and the journey that made it all possible.
Lewis' life story provided a new perspective for the students because he is the first Broadway Books First Class visitor to grow up deaf with deaf parents. His relationship with Deaf culture and ASL provided an insight and connection the students were eager to discuss and learn more about.
I selected Dad and Me in the Morning by Patricia Lakin and Robert G. Steele as our read aloud that afternoon because the book focuses on one early adventure in the life of a young deaf boy as he prepares to watch the sunrise over the ocean with his dad. Small moments are woven into the text and illustrations that respectfully capture some of the experiences of our students (e.g., ASL, flashing alarm clocks, feeling sound vibrations, visual attention to a speaker, tapping a shoulder to get someone's attention). Lewis read the book using ASL (without voice) with the pages projected on the SmartBoard so the children could integrate all of the visual information to comprehend the story.
It made me smile to watch it slowly dawn on the children that the boy in the story was deaf. Their comments and questions represented the arc of their understanding from, "He's deaf?!" to "I do that too!" We always try to find picture books that reflect the diversity of our student population so I was pleased to accomplish that goal.
After the reading, Lewis shared that he became hooked on performing during the show Equus by Peter Shaffer. He played Alan Strang, a "young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses"and knew slipping into the skin of fascinating characters was his future. He pursued his dream despite the early misgivings of his concerned parents and beat the odds to become a working Broadway actor. His is an inspiring story indeed.
It was with sweet affection that the boys and girls gathered around him to present a signed copy of the book with little fingers eager to point out their names before one final goodbye.
We all send a huge THANK YOU to Lewis for visiting and sharing a wonderful afternoon with us. Like a beautiful sunrise, it is a gift we will always cherish.
First graders proudly gathered around our distinguished guest Lewis Merkin
Broadway Books First Class