By Siiri Gilness
When we think of a film that spotlighted the use of sign language in our culture, usually the story of Helen Keller, told through the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker comes to mind. But another movie, released nearly 15 years earlier, actually broke the barrier. In 1948, Johnny Belinda was released starring Jane Wyman as Belinda MacDonald. Based on a true story, Belinda, a deaf mute in a coastal, small-minded town is befriended by the local doctor who teaches her signs for words, opening up a world of communication. When Belinda becomes pregnant after being raped by a local bully, her communication skills bring out the truth. The movie set records, gaining 12 Academy Award nominations with Jane winning in the Best Actress category. It was the first time since the era of silent films that an actor or actress won an Academy Award without saying a word. Upon receiving her Oscar, Jane set another record for the shortest acceptance speech, saying, “I won this award by keeping my mouth shut and I think I’ll do it again.” In 1986, Marlee Matlin was the first and only deaf performer to win an Academy Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God.
Sign language has been featured not only in movies, but also in music, where the use of sign can bring visual enhancement to a song’s lyrical poetry and broaden the reach of its message. Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female, African American vocal ensemble, incorporates American Sign Language into all of its live performances. As ambassadors of love, solidarity, and non-denominational spirituality, the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock are known for blending the sounds of their gospel, world, and folk roots into powerful, uplifting, and socially conscious message music. The group has been entertaining, educating, and empowering audiences for more than 40 years through a cappella music and sign language interpretation for the deaf and hearing impaired.
Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform at Leach Theatre on the campus of Missouri S&T on Thursday, February 22 at 7:30 pm.
Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.