For Rachel Nicol, her latest acting role hits close to home.
A Huntersville resident, Nicol plays Sarah Norman in Davidson Community Players' production of "Children of a Lesser God." Norman, who is deaf, has been using sign language to communicate with others since childhood. James Leeds, the new speech teacher at Norman's school, thinks she would be better off in the hearing world by reading lips and using "deaf speech."
The two characters fall in love, but find it hard to maintain a relationship when they share such different views. Norman begins to speak up about deaf rights and becomes torn between two worlds.
Nicol, deaf since birth, can relate to Norman's role in many ways.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"There will be times when people will speak for us and I hate that because that makes me feel like I have no voice, just like Sarah," Nicol wrote in an email. "I am so used to sitting in a room filled of people who are hearing and don't sign at all and being left out. But when something is said about me, I want to know."
Nicol, 28, works as a disability counselor for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. She had hearing-enabled parents who communicated with her using sign language. But Norman's character was not as lucky. Norman's mother could barely sign. Her father left when she was only 5. Then, Norman spent most of her life in a school for the deaf.
"She had to protect herself against people who were trying to change her or make her do things she was not able to do or didn't want to do," Nicol wrote of the character she plays. "She longs for people to understand her, accept her for who she is and that she is just like anyone else."
Mike Corrigan, a Charlotte resident, plays Leeds. Corrigan has worked with Theatre Charlotte, Opera Carolina and Children's Theatre of Charlotte and appeared in television and independent films.
He is also a sign-language interpreter manager for Fluent Language Solutions, in Charlotte.
Corrigan said Leeds is trying to make a difference in the world, even if his methods seem strange.
"He does some things that I don't understand where they come from, but in general, a lot of what he says and does I can relate to," Corrigan said of his character.
"He tries to connect with people and when he goes to say something, I think he's trying to be as honest as he can be."
Director Sam Parker, of Greensboro, grew up with deaf parents and even wrote a one-man show about it. Parker, 49, is an associate clinical professor at UNC Greensboro in the Department of Specialized Education Services and fluent in sign language.
Parker said the cast has been taking their roles very seriously.
"I walked into the theater where the entire cast was waiting to begin rehearsal and I noticed none of them were talking," he said. "All of them were communicating through sign language. This was wonderful to see."
Charlotte resident and clinical psychologist Julianne Gold Brunson is consulting with Parker on the production. She played Lydia in the 1980 Broadway production of "Children of a Lesser God," which earned three Tony Awards and ran for 887 performances.
"The play is set in a time when deafness was often mistaken for mental retardation," Brunson said in a news release.
"To the contrary, deaf people can have wonderful lives and careers. Do not be afraid of deafness as it is not a void or emptiness."
Since the play is set in the deaf community, Parker will be using "shadowing interpreting." Traditionally, the deaf attend one sign-interpreted performance if they want to see live theater. The deaf audience may be forced to choose whether to watch the interpreter in front of them or the actors on stage.
"Shadow interpreters place the sign language right next to the actors so there is one show that all patrons get to experience," Parker said in a news release.
"Utilizing this technique will make all 12 performances accessible to the deaf and hearing alike."