Urban Jazz Dance Company’s (UJDC) is presenting “GentriDeafcation: Echoes of Houselessness in the Bay,” at Z-Space November 10-12. Each Fall, this Deaf-led dance company presents its social justice-minded “Deaf Louder” home season. Past productions have focused on the experiences of Deaf incarcerated people and Deaf refugees. These performances intended for Deaf and Hearing audiences bring attention to oft-ignored concerns, and inclusively offer information and inspiration. Beyond raising awareness around Deaf issues, UJDC provides opportunities for Deaf, Hard of hearing (Hoh) and Disabled artists from marginalized backgrounds to create and perform.
Antoine Hunter, UJDC’s talented and charismatic founder, welcomes us using American Sign Language (ASL). A live interpreter voices his words, providing access for the hearing audience members, such as myself. Conjuring a shared intention among us, Hunter teaches to sign, “Open mind, open heart, open soul.” Touching our foreheads with our fingertips, elbows out to the side, we spread our arms out from our heads and in this way communicate our open mindedness.
The cast of UJDC's "GentraDeafcation" bows; photo J. Norris
Avoiding the pitfalls of some civil rights focused programs, which often tend toward the overly intellectual, and text-driven, “GentriDeafcation,” is grounded in artmaking and genuinely entertaining, while also being enlightening. Using dance, film, music, sign language, and spoken text segments explore what it means to be a Deaf person living on the streets.
Hunter sets the stage with his opening solo. In a powerful silence, his emotionally charged jazz technique is interwoven with ASL signs as well as communicative gestures and facial expressions. Even those of us who are not proficient in ASL understand this dance is a wish, an intention, and a blessing. The word-signs we learned for open minds, hearts and souls come forward, as we grasp the importance of learning to listen with our hearts and minds, and not just our ears.
Wouldn’t it be nice to not be immediately identified as disabled? Perhaps this is what performer and choreographer Ashlea B. Hayes is communicating as she attempts to hide her white cane behind her back. Adopting a playful persona, she vies for power with her cane. Is it leading her, or is she directing it? Arching elegantly backwards, she guides her stick behind herself completing a full circle with mastery and ease. The trajectory from embarrassment to confidence complete, our final vision is of Hayes hugging her trusty mobility aid. Initially the dance’s title, “Touch (My PT Journey),” gave me pause. However, during the post-performance remarks, we see Hayes working with a Pro-Tactile (PT) interpreter (this term comes from the printed program). Through her hands, which touch the signing hands of her personal PT interpreter, Hayes hears the discussion. Her face lights up when Hunter credits her with the eloquent reading of his poem, “Heart of the Bay Area.” Having lost her hearing later in life, Hayes speaks well. This ability, which she calls “speaking privilege,” is a skill she utilizes to facilitate a deeper understanding of the Deaf community in her workaday world as a Los Angeles based actress.
Partners Paunika Jones and Piper Thomasson perform a modern love duet to Tina Turner’s iconic “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Facing each other with bent knees and locked forearms, they share the burden of the other’s weight. Releasing one set of arms, they maintain a single-armed grip, as they tilt out from each other into long oppositional diagonals. When briefly separated, their magnetic attraction draws them back into each other’s arms for a swirling embrace.
“Make Me Wanna Holla,” (2017), Hunter’s dance film (Director Erica Eng) focused on the plight of a houseless Deaf man in San Francisco, provides an impactful interlude, but the large dance numbers are the lifeblood of the show.
Cover image of Erica Eng's "Make Me Wanna Holler" featuring Antoine Hunter
The company of nine dancers brings the second act to life with a series of dynamic dances inspired by the complex experiences of unhoused Deaf and disabled persons. The first section, a contemporary piece performed to a poem by Hunter, focuses on interdependencies between duos. Weight sharing, lifting, draping over each other, they give comfort and support to one another.
Inviting us to revisit our binary can or can’t assumptions about disability, Mei Chua performs with and without her wheelchair. Standing tall and unsupported for a moment, she provides a window into the diverse range of abilities people who use mobility devices may have.
Hunter’s choreography brings the disparate pairings together in a circle, as the verses urge us to “not forget their resilience and to advocate for them,” and to “build a society that is just and fair.”
Guest choreographer Dawn James sets her jazz-based narrative “Just A Paycheck Away,” on the corner of 24th and Mission Streets. Performers in down vests, flannel shirts and knit caps warm their hands over the golden light of a barrel turned brazier. Others enter the seating platform aisles. Begging, they reach out with open palms in the language of need we all understand. Gathering onstage, the company breaks into a mesmerizing number to Maceo Packer’s languid Alto-Sax jazz masterpiece, “Children’s World.” A trio turns in bent leg arabesque, their arms victoriously spread. The stage is a collage of fan kicks, deeply arched lunges, and soaring split leaps performed in duos and trios. All enjoy a level of contentment and camaraderie, before hunger and adversity take their toll. This caricature-defying portrayal of unhoused people with disabilities not being mired in unhappiness, but experiencing the full range of emotions, is imperative; especially as many among us are only one lapsed paycheck away from calamity.
Forming a line along the nighttime sky-drop, the dancers move forward clutching guts, holding heads, and punching the air. Hauntingly they choke themselves with one hand, as the other extends, hoping for a hand-out. Throughout these dances I can see layers of meaning, some of the gestures are universal, some speak more loudly to a Deaf or Hoh viewer. GentriDEAFcation has a cast of interpreters, working in the moment, to voice the signs for the hearing, and sign the spoken content for the DEAF. To bring a poem to life in performance, for a mixed-ability audience, is a complicated enterprise. The artist/translator understands the poem, not just its words, but its metaphors before translating them into physical gesture. A successful piece is rich in context and scaled to express emotion and meaning in a theatrical setting, compensating for lower light levels and vast auditorium sightlines. Dancer and Assistant Director Zahna Simon is the artist behind the American Sign Language magic for UJDC, helping choreographers bring their work to life and bridge the audience’s various abilities.
Hunter is a hopeful and grateful person, dedicated to bringing his dance community and his Deaf community into alignment. So it makes sense that as the final dance of the afternoon unfolds, he is moving through the auditorium, filling the room with bubbles. It’s a gimmick I am not sure is needed, but whose intention I appreciate. Hunter and UJDC continue to garner attention and support from many corners. This is work that deserves a wide viewership.
Review by Jen Norris, published November 14, 2023; Revised November 16, 2023 to include more information about how DEAF artists translate English into ASL in theatrical settings.