4Play/Many Shades of Disappointment
Drill Hall, 16 Chenies Street, London WC1E 7EX, UK
Friday 11 February 2011
As a hearing person, with no knowledge of sign language and little contact with deaf people, I didn't know what to expect when I attended the sell-out '4Play' showcase. '4Play' consisted of four short plays produced by the deaf-led theatre company Deafinitely Theatre at London's Drill Hall, and written by the winners of its 'Deafinitely Creative' competition - 'The Silent Royals' by Julian Peedle-Calloo, 'Chloe's Price' by Tomato Lichy, 'Red Flags' by Sannah Gulamani and 'Many Shades of Disappointment' by Donna Williams. The last of these four plays, 'Many Shades of Disappointment', delved into the hypothetical future, exploring the science, law, politics and culture of selective reproduction and deafness.
Deafinitely Theatre was set up in 2002 as an independent deaf-led company with the aim of promoting deaf culture, identity and pride, by providing a stage for untold deaf stories. The aim to build a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities is clear and successful. All four plays in the '4Play' showcase contained a mixture of sign and spoken word, alongside a projector screen providing text.
'Many Shades of Disappointment' begins in 2015, when the Genetic Diversity and Human Embryology Act has just come into force. Within it is a 'cultural genetics' clause, which allows parents to select for genes desirable to certain communities.
Ms Murphy is being interviewed during a televised news broadcast. She intends to use the new legislation to create a child who is deaf like her. Why not, she argues, the deaf are a community with their own language and culture. She fights off the questions from appalled audience members; no, it's not perverted to want a child she can relate to, and, no, she won't be creating a damaged child. The challenges the deaf face are posed by society, but with society progressing and technology opening doors, 'why erase the deaf over the convenience of hearing?'
It's now 2035, and Ms Murphy sits in her kitchen with her daughter, Shannon, now 20. 'You've met a new boy? What's his name?' she signs; conversation typical of a mother and daughter until it becomes apparent this new boy can hear. Tensions flare as Ms Murphy expresses her fears that Shannon will be sucked into the hearing world. During her date with the boy Matt, we discover that Shannon is already of the hearing world. She speaks, she hears.
'What do you do when you don't feel wanted by your family?' she asks Matt. That's a difficult question for anyone, but more so for a girl who knows her mother selected for a deaf child, but a scientific failure means she can hear. Surprisingly, Matt can relate. His mother used the cultural genetics clause to select for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, athletic boy and sued the company when he was the opposite of what she ordered.
Back at home, Shannon confronts her mother. As she had 20 years before, Ms Murphy explains her reasons for selecting for deafness; she wanted Shannon to be in her world. But now the procedure has failed, she feels detached from Shannon, unable to relate to her hearing life, and has created a child who feels overwhelmingly unwanted.
The script forces you to sympathise with both parties. It's not wrong for Ms Murphy to want Shannon to be part of a community she doesn't consider to be disabled. But it's hard to imagine the emotional turmoil Shannon faces knowing she isn't her mother's desired child. Matt's story also shows how legislation can harm wider society, forcing children to feel ashamed for something as simple as not being blue-eyed.
Isn't the adolescent/parent relationship hard enough without adding these extreme dynamics? While Williams' script focuses on the outcomes where technology failed to produce the desired child, I can't help but feel these issues might be alive even if Shannon and Matt were exactly what their parents requested. The perfect child cannot be genetically scripted.
Deafinitely Theatre staged a question-and-answer session after the performance, so that audience members could discuss the topics unravelled by the play and put questions to a panel of speakers. This panel was chaired by Martin McClean (project manager at Deafinitely Theatre), and consisted of Donna Williams (author of 'Many Shades of Dissapointment'), Paula Garfield (artistic director of Deafinitely Theatre) and her partner Tomato Lichy (author of another play in the '4Play' showcase, 'Chloe's Price').
The panel also included Sandy Starr, Communications Officer at the Progress Educational Trust (PET), the charity that publishes BioNews. He was included in the proceedings because PET advised Williams on the issues surrounding selective reproduction, and also because PET also wrote an insert included in the '4Play' programme, explaining the science and law of PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis).
Debate quickly turned to the feasibility of legislation like the fictional Genetic Diversity and Human Embryology Act, and the desirability of allowing a mechanism for the deliberate creation of a child likely to be deaf. This discussion was ignited by Garfield and Lichy in 2008, when the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was being debated in Parliament, and the couple campaigned to be allowed to use a deaf embryo created during IVF instead of having to implant one without known abnormalities. After all, if deafness is not perceived to be a disability, then it's easy to argue that such embryos could be legitimately selected. But where do we draw the line? Who decides which genetic characteristics are disabled or healthy, desirable or undesirable?
Feelings were mixed among the panel and the audience alike. Clearly, there are no right or simple answers. Although I finished the evening feeling more confused about genetic selection than when I started, I gained an important insight into the deaf community. I was shocked by Garfield and Lichy's accounts of society's ignorance towards the deaf. Deafinitely Theatre has set out to counter misconceptions and media sensationalism regarding the deaf world. '4Play', and in particular 'Many Shades of Disappointment', have accomplished this aim.