Dance Work Explores World of Deaf Prisoners

by Jean Schiffman

Deaf advocate and choreographer Antoine Hunter’s Urban Jazz Dance Company presents “Imprisoned.”

On a late-September afternoon at CounterPulse, a performing arts presenter in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the Urban Jazz Dance Company is about to rehearse its latest show, “Imprisoned.”

As I step into the elevator with two other women, I ask, “Are you part of the dance troupe?” One says “Yes”; the other merely smiles. I follow them both into the rehearsal room.

This is a racially mixed group of women—seven of the eight to ten performers are present today—and most, but not all, are deaf.

The lingua franca here is American Sign Language (ASL); even the hearing dancers know at least some sign language, having previously worked with choreographer Antoine Hunter, the company’s founder/artistic director, for several years. In “Imprisoned,” audiences, at least initially, won’t be able to distinguish between the deaf and hearing. Hunter wants to keep them guessing. “I don’t know if I’ll let them know who’s deaf at the end,” he muses. “I don’t want to put you in a box,” he tells the dancers.

Hunter is a tall African-American man with a beard, dreadlocks and a big, warm smile; he is wearing a gray skullcap, a hoodie, track pants and a T-shirt that says “I [heart] Being Black.” There is no interpreter today; absurdly, I find myself asking him how he will hear me. “I can’t hear you,” he replies, reading my lips intently. Hunter also relies for lip-reading help on his assistant director and company member Zahna Simon, a petite dancer with a long blonde ponytail. When directing, he both speaks and signs with seemingly equal ease.

This is a rehearsal full of laughter, although the theme of the piece is a serious one: an exploration of what life is like for Deaf prisoners. Hunter is a Deaf-community advocate and public speaker, as well as a dance and ASL instructor; since 2011, when he collaborated with local choreographer Joanna Haigood and composer Marcus Shelby to create “Dying While Black and Brown,” about African-Americans on death row, he’s been especially interested in the plight of deaf inmates, a subgroup that is often marginalized, mistreated, misunderstood and unaware of their legal rights.

The multidisciplinary work includes signed and spoken text (script written by Hunter), song, dance (including ballet, Afro-Cuban, modern and jazz; Hunter himself will perform a solo), music (jazz and classical), captioned projections and videos of interviews with prisoners conducted by the Deaf advocacy organization HEARD (from which Hunter gathered much of his research material). As former president of Bay Area Black Deaf Advocates and director-at-large for the Northern California Association of the Deaf, he has learned a lot, through personal contacts, about the struggle of Deaf prisoners. “I feel like I want to push this forward a little, educate people,” he says. In depicting, through abstract performance, prison life for Deaf inmates, he adds, “We don’t sugarcoat anything.” He is approaching the work in “a light and a heavy way,” with full awareness of the metaphorical aspect: “The oppression [that deaf people experience] can make people feel like they’re in prison,” he says. Among the facts that he offers: “Prisons rarely provide qualified interpreters or other auxiliary aids. As a result, Deaf prisoners rarely have access to medical and mental health services and to educational and rehabilitative programs, which are critical steps to early-release options.”

An engineer will install a special device into the dance floor of CounterPulse’s performance space to enable deaf dancers to more easily feel vibrations, but for today’s rehearsal, Hunter plays music on a device, and cues the dancers—“Five, six, seven, eight!”—and they form a rhythmically harmonious group, filing on stage barefoot, assuming the postures and attitudes of prisoners released into the open air of the courtyard: they stretch, do jumping jacks, pushups—they’ll jog through the audience, up and down the risers, explains Hunter. “Take that breath!” he tells them. “You probably only get an hour and a half a day outside.”

Sitting on the floor, each in her own tiny imaginary cell, they pop up intermittently to cross off days on the wall. Hunter reminds them of their invisible perimeters.

A dancer sits on a chair—a prisoner being accused of breaking a rule. “How would you say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was him?’” Hunter asks her, as she improvises gesture and movement. It’s only one of the many difficulties that deaf prisoners face—trying to explain themselves to uncomprehending guards.

Hunter separates the dancers into two groups—the hearing and the deaf. “Cross worlds!” he shouts, as a member of each group traverses an invisible dividing line to the other side and struggles for attention; the hearing person shouts and gesticulates, her deaf counterpart stamps
her feet, both are ignored.

Preceding “Imprisoned,” four deaf guest artists take the stage: Christopher Smith, in a solo exploring the deaf and gay African-American prison experience; Ian Sanborn, in a piece about kids in prison; and the improv team JAC Cook and Rosa Lee Timm.

Hunter says he can feel the emotions communicated by music, sense a variety of pitches, whether it be Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix or classical. Back in public high school, he felt isolated and alone, even suicidal, until a teacher suggested he create a dance to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It changed his life forever; it gave him the means to communicate through this visual art form. Deaf people sense sound differently, he says, but sense it nevertheless: “It’s in our DNA. It’s part of our Deaf culture.” He went on to study dance at CalArts, learned various dance forms, and has performed here at home and around the world.

And through dance—as well as through his education and advocacy efforts, which have included such activities as university lectures and a TedX talk—he has the skills to, he asserts, share truths.

“I believe,” he says, “everyone has a voice.”

Nov. 8 → 11


80 Turk St., San Francisco