Crying Hands immerses theatergoers
Innovative sign-language play from Norway’s Teater Manu tells story of deaf persecution
Christine Foster Meloni
Teater Manu, Norway’s award-winning National Deaf Theater based in Oslo, staged its American premiere of Crying Hands: Deaf People in Hitler’s Germany (Gråtende hender: Om døve i Hitlers Tyskland) at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theater in Washington, D.C. This play was written and directed by Norwegian Bentein Baardson.
Crying Hands is the story of Hans and Gertrud, two individuals living in Nazi Germany. Hans, who was born deaf, becomes an early supporter of Hitler and joins a Nazi storm trooper unit. Gertrud is a medical student from a wealthy family who becomes interested in the Nazi theories about race. Both eventually end up in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Baardson notes that this play is “no ordinary theater production, it does not tell a fictional tale. We are telling a story about real events. In this story, reality surpasses the imagination.”
Although Hans and Gertrud are fictitional, Baardson based their dialogue on interviews with 10 deaf Holocaust survivors in Israel. He states that he had not known of the Nazi plan to eliminate the deaf.
“I had absolutely no knowledge of the statutory sterilization of deaf men, women, and children in Germany in the 1930s. Neither was I aware that already then the Nazis had implemented systematic measures to eradicate the deaf and that they considered this to be a natural part of their eugenics program.”
The audience at the premiere comprised primarily deaf people. Before the performance began, the lobby was very quiet although a lot of communication was clearly going on. The ushers then took particular care to ensure that everyone had a seat with a good angle to see the actors on stage.
The deaf actors performed using American Sign Language (ASL) while a voice actor translated the dialogue for the hearing audience unfamiliar with ASL.
For Joel Myklebust, a hearing child of deaf adults, the production had extra significance. He remarked that “in closed captioning, you have to use your eyes for both the action and the captions and going back and forth can be challenging. In this play, however, we could use our eyes to focus on the actors and our ears to listen to the voice actor. For someone with modest sign-language comprehension, it was a remarkable experience to ‘hear’ the performance through two senses.”
The actors’ performances were accompanied by powerful photomontages of scenes from the Nazi era. “As I immersed myself in the material and studied it, including the important writings of Horst Biesold, it became clear to me that this undiscovered part of our history had to be communicated in a documentary manner, using photomontages—literally as a historical/visual backdrop to the actors’ performances,” said Baardson.
Dramatic sound effects such as marching soldiers and slamming train car doors enhanced the production at an intensity that the entire audience could feel.
ASL-style “waving hands” applause was given at the end. As Tim Christenson said, “This was a powerful performance—about a reality that was worse than anything we can imagine.”
The performance was produced in collaboration with the George Washington Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s Theater and Dance program. It was sponsored by the Norwegian embassies in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, Canada, and the Norwegian consulate in New York City. Following the Washington premiere, it was performed in New York and Toronto.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.