Songs My Mother Never Sung Me: a coming-of-age deaf/hearing chamber opera at Chinook

Luc Tellier, Erik Mortimer, Susan Gilmour, Kieran Martin Murphy, Elizabeth Morris in Songs My Mother Never Sung Me. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“This is the story of how my mom helped me find my voice,” says the narrator (the excellent Kieran Martin Murphy) in Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, a touching, and ingenious, new bilingual chamber opera” (sung and signed) by Dave Clarke.

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At the heart of that tribute is a startling contradiction, and an insight about language and communication. Mom, in Clarke’s musical memoir of growing up in the U.K., is deaf from birth. Boy, Clarke’s stand-in, is a hearing/speaking person. And the songs of the title are songs “with words she never heard,” songs “sung in another language, “songs she never heard.” The centrepiece the design (C.M. Zuby and Lynette Maurice, with projections by Kim Clegg) is a grand piano, a striking contradiction in itself. 

Actually, the songs that are “seen and not heard” are both seen and heard in the piece by Clarke. His own coming-of-age story, growing up with a deaf mom, is built on the fact that his theatre career — as a composer, musician and sound designer — is based on sound.

In the Concrete Theatre production directed by Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth — premiering at Sound Off, the deaf theatre festival that’s part of the Chinook Series — two actors play Mom. One signs in ASL (American sign language), the appealing, stunningly expressive deaf artist Elizabeth Morris. One sings, cabaret and musical theatre star Susan Gilmour.

In his playwright’s program notes, Clarke points out that on the page “sign” and “sign” are near-twins. And the actors stick together. Except, that is, when Mom is skyping her own mother, in scenes that are so vigorously presented by Morris that even if (like me) you don’t know ASL, you get the gist. And it’s fun.

It’s perhaps telling, and may be part of the point, that the signing Mom is radiantly animated, sometimes quizzical, and often amused, while singing Mom looks vaguely anxious, wary, and worried all the time. Eloquent signing seems to invite a certain theatrical physical grace and pizzaz. And an urgent desire to communicate seems to propel Morris, in every gesture, nod, smile, raised eyebrow. 

Boy is played, from infancy to school-age, by Luc Tellier, in a delightfully agile performance. First he learns baby signing, in songs with a nursery rhyme vocabulary of basic needs words strung together: “yum yum,” “done.” “quack.” And gradually, as Boy grows, in a sequence of birthday scenes that invariably end in an unsuccessful attempt to get a cookie before dinner, his dexterity in simultaneous translation gets more sophisticated.

There are frustrations (“I’m young, and my mom’s hard to understand”). Universal difficulties in communication between parents and kids are heightened when two languages are involved. But what sneaks up on you is that the aural/ visual divide enhances Boy’s natural creativity; being bilingual, he’s forced to be quick-witted and alert in a way other kids aren’t. The sign for “I’m proud,” which involves a spread hand rising from the heart to the top of the head is memorable.

Clarke’s score, through-sung and accompanied live by the endlessly inventive pianist/ musical director Erik Mortimer, favours rhythm over melody, in a somewhat tuneless recitative effect. After all, Boy discovers that the essence of music, to a deaf mom, is receptivity to vibration. The production features vibration amplification (sound designer: Bobby Smale) in the lower piano notes.

“It’s so loud; everyone is talking!” marvels Boy, slightly appalled as he enters the great big noisy world of school and other kids. “Are we different?” he wonders. Once he has a friend, with all the secret alliances that implies, he appreciates what’s different, and what’s not, in a new way.

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me is a simple story, presented in an innovative way by three hearing actors, a deaf actor, and an accomplished pianist, of how to appreciate what’s the same — across a divide that might seem insurmountable but isn’t. Now there’s a thought to launch a national tour.

REVIEW

Sound Off: A Deaf Theatre Festival, part of Chinook Series

Songs My Mother Never Sung Me

Theatre: Concrete Theatre

Written by: Dave Clarke

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi and Caroline Howarth

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 780-409-1910, chinookseries.ca

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