When Honolulu Theatre of Youth (HTY) artistic director Eric Johnson first thought about mounting a play in October for Halloween, his original idea involved staging stories by Edgar Allan Poe starring local entertainer Ed Chevy. “I love Ed’s work,” says Johnson. “He’s one of the best actors here in Hawai‘i, and I’ve seen him share Edgar Allan Poe stories beautifully as visual theater.”
But as the two started talking, the idea for a play shifted from stories about Poe to ones about Ed Chevy himself. They developed Can You Hear My Hands?, a compilation of stories, songs and observations from Chevy’s remarkable life. He’ll be on stage playing music, laughing, sharing past experiences, and teaching the audience—all without saying a word. Chevy is Deaf, has been since birth, but his inability to hear hasn’t gotten in the way of becoming a nationally recognized traveling performer and educator. ˛ at’s part of the story.
“I learned about a performance tradition within the Deaf community that featured sketch comedy and storytelling, and so the play shifted to become more about that, as something for both Deaf and hearing audiences, a bit of an introduction to Deaf culture and American Sign Language,” Johnson says.
Johnson, Chevy and Michele Morris, a hearing person who has worked creatively with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth for years as both a translator and interpreter for the Deaf, came together to conceptualize this new play from scratch, as an opportunity to connect with both hearing and Deaf audiences, of all ages. Sitting down at HTY’s Tenney Theatre inside St. Andrew’s Priory in downtown Honolulu, the three have come together on a Monday afternoon to talk about the genesis of the play, Chevy’s journey and Deaf culture. For the purposes of this interview, Chevy is communicating with the help of Morris as interpreter, who has also been his longtime friend of close to 30 years.
“Deaf people, what we have is visual art, body language and manual communication. It’s really interesting to work with HTY on this, because now we’re putting the history of Deaf culture together,” says Chevy. “Eric and Michele have different perspectives and it really opens up a whole new world with new insights.”
Growing up in a Deaf family, Chevy was able to learn about and appreciate Deaf culture from a young age. He was raised by parents who were rock stars in their respective industries; Chevy’s father was one of the founding members of the National Theatre for the Deaf and built airplanes during World War I. After the war, he built an airplane from scratch using a motor he bought from Howard Hughes, currently on display at the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond. Chevy’s mother was a flamenco dancer who performed around the country with Bob Hope at USO Shows, alongside then-unknown celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. When Helen Keller visited the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, where Chevy’s mother was attending, Keller asked about her career as a performer and what it felt like to dance. To show her, a man came in and helped to lift Keller up and move her around the space, with the guidance of Chevy’s mother. “Helen was so inspired, she had never experienced anything like that before,” Chevy says.
Chevy represents the combination of both his parents’ passions: performance and education. As a child, he remembers seeing Th e Who performing in concert in 1966, smashing guitars and destroying drums live on stage. The next day, he told his father he wanted to become a rock star. “This was a band that wasn’t just standing there playing instruments on stage, they were moving to the music,” says Chevy. “It really helped me understand that for the Deaf to appreciate music, they have to see it. They have to follow along with the acting and the rhythm.”
Chevy attended the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, where he met a guy playing the guitar at a party, Steve Longo. Later, when they both attended Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., Chevy and Longo met Bob Hiltermann, a drummer. Together, they formed Beethoven’s Nightmare, the world’s first all-Deaf rock band, traveling around the country to perform at both Deaf and hearing concerts several times a year. An educator as well, Chevy travels about four times a year by himself, teaching workshops about sign language and developing communication skills at Deaf schools in Mississippi, Maryland and Minnesota, among other cities.
Here in Hawai‘i, Can You Hear My Hands? is intended for hearing audiences, as a performance both educational and entertaining. After all, it’s not every day that you get to see a Deaf musician perform on stage with lights, sound and full costumes. Audiences will get to experience music the way Chevy does, with vibrations and seeing an electronic beat to maintain rhythm. Th ey’ll learn some American Sign Language, and will find that they already know quite a bit: Ever give a “thumbs up” to gesture approval? Or twirl a finger to your ear to indicate someone might be acting crazy? Th at’s nonverbal communication, sign language.
“It’s the perfect play for Hawai‘i because we’re already so used to meeting people from other cultures and appreciating the things about them,” says Johnson. “Even if someone isn’t Chinese, for example, they might still go out with friends to celebrate Chinese New Year. Or they’ll go to a Japanese bon dance. I love the idea of people, hearing or otherwise, being able to explore Deaf culture with the same kind of joy, curiosity and understanding.”
“It’s an honor for me that someone from the Deaf community would want me involved with this type of performance. As an interpreter, I’m just facilitating the conversation. But now, by being part of the production and actually up on the stage, it’s scary but exciting at the same time,” says Michele Morris, who will not only be interpreting Ed Chevy for the audience, but also an integral part of the show itself. After the run of the show, Chevy and Morris, who also does significant Deaf translation and interpretation work, will take the costumes and various pieces for their own presentations and performances in the community.
“Whenever I work with children, the most important thing I say is for them to find their rhythm. Our inner rhythm has a story to tell. Not necessarily music, but the rhythm of their own personal life; what time do you get up, have lunch, go to bed? Understanding the rhythm of their lives is very important for all of us to learn, in order to improve our senses of it.” Chevy says. “At the schools, like in this play, they’ll learn finger spelling, mime, body movement, language and personal expression. And of course, they’ll learn that Deaf people are really, really cool.”
For more information on Can You Hear My Hands? visit htyweb.org.