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Theater

A Revolution They Helped Inspire

Phyllis Frelich and Mark Medoff team again to document a key moment for deaf Americans.

April 22, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

As Phyllis Frelich grew up in the small town of Devils Lake, N.D., going to Gallaudet College in Washington was one of life's greatest aspirations-just as it was for many other young, deaf Americans.

"The dream was to get out of wherever you were and to meet and mingle with the cream of the deaf world, all together in one place," Frelich recalled-and that place was Gallaudet, the most important school for deaf students in America, known as "the castle on the hill."

Frelich achieved her goal, graduating from Gallaudet in 1967. She went on to become one of the college's most famous alumni, thanks to her role in Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," for which she won the Tony Award for best Broadway actress in 1980.

The subject of Frelich and Medoff's latest collaboration is closely related to Gallaudet itself. In "Road to a Revolution," currently playing at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, a transformative event in the history of Gallaudet makes waves many miles from Washington, D.C., as well.

When Frelich was a student at Gallaudet, little notice was taken of the fact that the president of the college was not deaf. That's the way it had always been. But several years later, people started to notice. When Gallaudet began looking for a new president in the late '80s, pressure mounted to name someone who was deaf.

Nonetheless, in March 1988, the school's board, presented with two finalists for the job who were deaf and one who was hearing, picked the one who could hear.

In one of the most audible protests ever by deaf Americans, the Gallaudet students and faculty rose up and blocked the gates to the school, shutting it down and preventing the newly appointed president from setting foot on the campus. After several tense days, the president resigned and the board reversed course, selecting I. King Jordan as the first deaf president in the school's 124-year history. The non-deaf chairwoman of the board also resigned and was replaced by a deaf man.

"We joke that this revolution was the deaf civil rights movement compressed into one week," said Robert Steinberg, Frelich's non-deaf husband, interpreter and noted set designer.

The 1988 uprising at Gallaudet looked like possible movie material to Medoff, whose "Children of a Lesser God" had already been made into a Hollywood film. Accompanied by Frelich and Steinberg, Medoff made the rounds of the studios, not long after the Gallaudet events took place. Their initial idea pitted a fictional deaf Gallaudet board member against her deaf daughter, a student protester. It didn't sell. Medoff recalled that one young movie executive responded, "But there already was a deaf movie'-referring, of course, to "Children of a Lesser God." A few years later, a studio offered Medoff the chance to rewrite and direct an existing script about the Gallaudet protest as a TV movie. By then, however, he had decided he didn't want to write about the events at Gallaudet. Medoff, who isn't deaf, thought people might object to a hearing writer telling this story. "I didn't feel it was my place," he said. In addition, Medoff said he doesn't enjoy writing about real, living people. "I've dealt with real people, and it's difficult to write the negative side of anyone you become involved with," he said.

So Medoff and Steinberg proposed an alternative: a "road" scenario involving a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans and their relatives who, fired up by the rebellion at Gallaudet, board a van and travel across America to join the protest. The mother-daughter conflict from the initial idea remained, in the form of a deaf woman whom Frelich would play and her adult daughter. But this time the characters were from New Mexico. Medoff, who was a theater professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces from 1978 to 1992, set the characters at a deaf school in Santa Fe, primarily because he hoped that the proposed movie could be shot close to home. Again, however, the movie didn't happen. The release of Spike Lee's similarly structured "Get on the Bus" in 1996 may have had so mething to do with it, Medoff said. But there were more substantive issues: The studio wanted a family-oriented TV movie, and Medoff's attempt to include extensive closed-captioning resulted in protests that some kids who would watch the movie couldn't read. Also, the studio wanted the leading character to be a kid-the teenage, non-deaf granddaughter of Frelich's character. "If possible," Medoff said, "they wanted to make a movie about deafness with no deaf people." Medoff wanted to write about three generations of women, and he especially wanted to write a leading role for Frelich, whom he calls his "favorite actor."

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