With deaf character, artist helps students find their voices

Editor's Note: This piece by Euan Kerr is part of a series called Minnesota Mix. Minnesota Mix is a project of Minnesota Public Radio News that examines the way youth and ethnic diversity are influencing Minnesota arts. Enjoy...


On May 4, 2012, White Space Poetry Project writer / director Maya Washington addresses the class at Sheridan Arts Magnet School in Minneapolis, as student Garrett Berg looks on.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the black box theater at the Sheridan Arts Magnet School in Minneapolis, the sixth-grade class warms up with an exercise.

"Poetry is! Poetry is!" exclaims Maya Washington as the students clap in rhythm.

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Washington, a local actor, leads the students in calling out one word which describes poetry to them.

"Love!" calls one student. "Kind!" calls another. Others offer "happiness," "peace," "creative," "beautiful" and "sparkling" as their words.

Washington is in the classroom as a result of an epiphany she had a few years ago. She grew up in Minneapolis and performed at the Penumbra Theater, the Guthrie and others. Then she moved to Los Angeles and found work doing television. However, she thought it was unsatisfying.

"I, one morning, woke up with a dream or just this image in the waking hours of the morning of this deaf performance poet going to perform at an open mike night for a hearing audience," she says.

Washington turned that image into a short film called "White Space," named for the relationship poets have with the blank page. The film shows a young deaf man trying to find the courage to get on stage to perform. (He is so late he almost misses the show, but he gets there just in time.}

"For the first time on the sweet alabaster stage welcome my man," says the MC. "He calls himself the poet, y'all."

He initially stuns the audience by delivering his verse in American Sign Language. But that surprise turns to appreciation as he gets a standing ovation.


Ryan Lane as a deaf performance poet appearing before a hearing audience for the first time in Maya Washington's short film "White Space."

Image courtesy Maya Washington

Washington directed and acted in the film. But as someone who had worked as a motivational speaker, she wanted to take it further. She drew together three things: the film, an accompanying poetry anthology, and, she says, "The third component is to take the work, the anthology and the short film into schools, into communities and expose people both to deaf and hearing artists and specifically in the medium of poetry and film."

The staff at Sheridan Elementary heard about White Space and got a State Arts Board grant of Legacy Amendment funding to pay for Washington's residency.

And at Sheridan, Washington found an appreciative, if boisterous, audience.

"Focus!" she calls.

"Check!" the students respond.


White Space Poetry Project writer and director Maya Washington, second from left, leads students through poetry exercises at Sheridan Arts Magnet School in Minneapolis, on May 4, 2012. Washington snaps her fingers after hearing one student read his poem aloud. Here the snapping of fingers is used to indicate applause.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Focus!" she repeats.


As the sixth grade class progresses, Washington works to keep the students' attention. There's a lot of emotional energy on this Friday afternoon. In fact a few of the children are sniffling because they just learned a beloved student teacher in another class is about to leave the school. But Washington draws them in.

"Are we in a space where we need to collect ourselves, or are we ready to get on it?" she asks.

"Get on it," a couple of students respond.

These students watched the "White Space" movie. Sheridan's theater teacher, Kathleen Hession, who has been working with Washington, says the film left them mesmerized.

"You know they are a rowdy bunch of kids that have a lot to say," Hession says, "and when we screened the film, it was the quietest, stillest moment I have ever seen here." A few days later the students present name poems in which they, like the poet in the film, describe themselves to the world. The pieces are short but revealing. A number talk about family members no longer in the home. Some of the students rush through their work or mumble shyly. Others, like Ajoyia Hand, speak loud and clear.

"My name is Ajoyia. It means giggly, loving and caring.

"It is like a flamingo, or like eating a watermelon.... " she says.

The students listen and applaud using sign language when she finishes. The class learned some signs, and teachers report seeing the students signing outside the classroom.


Students, from left, Kia Lor, Laresha Jones and Sunnie Austin are among those participating in the White Space Poetry Project at Sheridan Arts Magnet School in Minneapolis, on May 4, 2012.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Washington says she has been careful as a hearing person in her portrayal of the deaf community. She worked with several non-hearing artists as she prepared the project, including Twin Cities-based filmmaker and poet Raymond Laczak.

Speaking though an interpreter, he says she has done a good job. "So it's not just just her coming in and portraying the community as a hearing person. I think it's been done in a respectful manner, and I think that's the way to do it," Laczak says.

And Luczak says getting sixth-graders to consider poetry is a good thing.

"I think at sixth grade that was when I started to identify as a writer," he said.

While "White Space" is based in poetry, it's also a lot about identity. Not just who you are but who you could be. Washington says it's also about perspective. She says that as an African-American woman, it can be tough to get good acting jobs, but she knows if she were deaf, it would be much more difficult. It's a message she wants to pass on to the students.


Tiaira Martin holds her poetry assignment in front of her face and giggles as she gets up the courage to share her writing with her classmates at Sheridan Arts Magnet School in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 4, 2012.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"You think you've got it so bad," she says. "You think it's so hard to speak up in class or read a line from your poem. But imagine if you spoke a completely different language and you had to get up and attempt to communicate. But you are communicating in a language we all understand, and so you can do it."

However, Hession, the theater teacher, sees a further advantage to having Washington in the classroom. Many of the questions in class have been about making the film itself. It's the first time many students have seen someone acting in a film and then been able to ask talk to that person. Hession says this led the children to consider their own futures.

"It was very clear that a lot of them began to think on this is a real life possibility," Hession says. "This is something I could do. Something people do, rather than something I pay money to watch other people do."

After completing classes at Sheridan, Washington will present "White Space" to the Young Authors Conference at Bethel University in St Paul.