Nalaga'at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble is a world famous acting group whose cast consists of a dozen talented deaf-blind actors. RespectAbilityUSA is an American non-profit organization devoted to empowering people with disabilities to be valued and respected for the abilities that they do have. Claudia Gordon works at the White House Office of Public Engagement where she serves as the Public Engagement Advisor to the Disability Community. All three joined together for a night of theater and exchange, when Nalaga'at performed at the Kennedy Center.
Backstage before the performance, Adina Tal, their troupe's director, explained to Claudia Gordon and RespectAbility that early on Nalaga'at was only invited to events for disability groups – but did not go. They waited for two years until they were good enough to be accepted on stage as equals with performers without disabilities. Now they tour the prominent stages of the world.
Also back stage before opening night, Nalaga'at actors asked the White House's Gordon about her past. Deaf herself, Gordon spoke through an interpreter about her path from being excluded from school in her native Jamaica to moving to the United States where she graduated from law school and has come to work for President Obama. The conversation was a rich and beautiful mix of English, Hebrew, Arabic, sign language and tactile sign language, a kind of sign language done by touching so that people who are deaf-blind can fully communicate. Before we began our conversation each member of the group shook hands with each other so that the deaf-blind actors could literally feel the connection fully with their guests, and vice versa.
RespectAbility and Nalaga'at both work to expand job opportunities for people with disabilities. The Nalaga'at Center develops specialized employment frameworks to help deaf, blind and deaf-blind people work, develop and earn a living; achieve self-fulfillment and nurture their unique abilities and talents. All people are equal and all people are different, and every person has the right to assume responsibility for contributing to society.
The Kennedy Center performance included stand-out performers by actors Mark Yaroski, Itzik Hanuna and Genia Shatsky. The entire cast, who at times move to cues driven through the vibrations of drums, and at other times from cues through gentle touches from their sighted and hearing interpreters who appear largely silently onstage while dressed in black so they stay in the background. The play was performed in Hebrew but had both sign language interpretation and live captions so that the audience could follow in entirety. Following the show the audience was invited on stage to share bread, baked as a part of the show and to meet the actors. It was magical.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-founder of RespectAbility USA and the co-director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust. She is dyslexic and could not read and write well until she was 12.