"Children of a Lesser God"

A Full Length Play by Mark Medoff

Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin played the role of Sarah in the movie version of "Children of a Lesser God.". Win McNamee

James Leeds is the new speech teacher at a State School for the Deaf. He is a hard and diligent teacher fresh from working in the Peace Corps and attempting to earn a doctoral degree. He begins the play as a passable signer who is teaching mainly students who are hard of hearing the properties of correct speech. Mr. Franklin, the supervising teacher at the School for the Deaf, brings a young woman named Sarah Norman to James with the expectation that the new teacher work with her during his spare time.

Sarah is profoundly deaf. She was born deaf and due to the particulars of her condition, her deafness is permanent. No amplification devices or surgery will work for her. She is twenty-six years old, works as a maid for the school, and has been living and learning in the small world of the State School for the Deaf since she was five years old.  Sarah has zero interest in learning to speak or joining the hearing world.

Sarah immediately intrigues James. She is both a challenging pupil and a strong, attractive woman. Sarah, despite her reluctance to learn from James, begins to fall for him. By the end of Act One, they are married.

James and Sarah move across the street from the deaf school into faculty housing and their problems begin in earnest. The students at the school accuse her of turning her back on the deaf world to make it in the hearing world for the sake of new material possessions like a blender and her own TV.

Meanwhile, James receives the unwanted attention of Lydia who is jealous of his attention to Sarah.

Orin, Sarah’s old classmate, recruits Sarah in his attempt to sue the school for wrongful discrimination practices. Through all of this, James and Sarah are still working through the issue of her refusal to speak for herself and her refusal to allow anyone to speak for her.

The play culminates in Sarah writing a speech to present during the court case where she beautifully describes her language and her world. She ends her speech with:

“Until you let me be an individual, an I, just as you are, you will never truly be able to inside my silence and know me. And until you can do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.”

James takes this last part of her speech personally. He gets furious with her since he feels that he has tried and tried over and over again to prove to her that he loves her precisely for who she is. He does not want to change her, but she refuses to accept him. They separate for a while only to come together at the end with a hope that they can begin anew.

Production Details

Set: Mostly bare stage. This play occurs in the mind of James Leeds.

The set for Children of a Lesser God is meant to be suggestive - not fully realized rooms and locations. Several chairs, benches, boxes, and a chalkboard allow for characters to enter, interact, and leave quickly and suggest the various scene locales in the play. Because the action occurs in James’s memory, the bareness of the stage reflects what’s important - the characters, the words, the signs, and their actions.

Time: Late 1970s early 1980s

Time in this play, is fluid. Scenes flow seamlessly from one moment to the next with the actors should moving away from one event and into the next moment or day without acknowledging a change and sometimes leaving characters and emotions behind.

Characters may simply pop up from various areas of the stage and begin speaking words of advice or sharing a memory. Whenever this happens, the main action on the stage continues undisturbed.

Cast Size: This play can accommodate 7 actors.

Male Characters: 3

Female Characters: 4

Content Issues: Sex, language

Roles

James Leeds is the new speech teacher at the State School for the Deaf. He is a promising teacher and the school faculty is happy to have him. He has an affinity for, if not a complete understanding of, Deaf Culture and Sign Language.

Initially he is surprised at the push-back he gets from his students about learning to speak and his culture shock continues the deeper he goes into the Deaf World.

Sarah Norman is a young deaf woman who is angry and frustrated as she straddles two worlds. She loves James and the marriage they are creating together, but she is so entrenched in the Deaf World with Deaf Pride that it pulls her away from him. She is afraid that expressing any disappointment in being deaf is tantamount to accepting the way the world sees her: incapable, dumb, and even use the term “retarded.”

Orin Dennis grew up at the State School for the Deaf with Sarah. He is hard of hearing, which means that his limited auditory reception can be helped with amplification devices such as hearing aids. He is extremely dissatisfied that the majority of teachers at the school are hearing and believes that the deaf ought to teach the deaf.

Mrs. Norman is Sarah’s mother. She has not seen her daughter in eight years and she longs to reestablish some kind of connection. She does not understand Sarah and does not pretend that she does either. She loves her daughter for who she is, but neither of them is sure that love is enough to repair their relationship.

Mr. Franklin is the supervising teacher at the State School for the Deaf. He runs a tight ship. Mr. Franklin is a product of a time in which deaf people were considered disabled people. He has respect for them, he has a grasp of their language, but he does not think they are capable of teaching the next generation of deaf students and providing them with the skills to function effectively in the hearing world.

Lydia is a student who is hard of hearing. She has a huge crush on James Leeds and does everything she can to seduce him. She figures that if he loved one deaf girl, he can love another.

Edna Klein is the lawyer Orin hires to help him sue the school. She is a well-meaning and nice woman who has no experience whatsoever working or communicating with a deaf person.

Production Notes: Actors

Playwright Mark Medoff insists that the actors cast as Orin, Lydia, and Sarah be deaf or hard of hearing. Alongside this requirement is the recommendation that the actor cast as James Leeds be a fluent signer. Production of this play requires an ASL or signed English interpreter from the beginning of the rehearsal process in order to facilitate communication between the actors who are deaf or hard of hearing and the rest of the production crew. The interpreter, especially if he or she can teach sign language, can be valuable in assessing the ability of the actors who are hearing to pick up and use sign language fluently in the production. The production notes insist that the interpreter and/or a sign language teacher be a voting member of the casting team.

There is a special note that the actor playing James, if not already fluent in sign, be prepared to spend as much time or more learning sign language as he would spend in rehearsal. By the end of the play, he is required to interpret his words, the lawyer’s words, Sarah’s signs, and telephone conversations fluently enough for deaf audience members to read and understand everything.

ASL and Signed English

The dialogue in the script makes a distinction between Signed English and ASL or American Sign Language. Signed English is a word for word and sometimes syllable for syllable translation of speech into signs. American Sign Language uses the same signs, or slightly varied but similar signs, in more visual or pictorial ways and has its own grammar and use. James (at the beginning), Mr. Franklin, and Mrs. Norman all use Signed English. It is an easier translation for their hearing characters to process. Sarah, Orin, Lydia, and James (later) use the faster and more descriptive ASL when signing, especially to each other and when they wish to exclude the hearing people in the room.

Resources

Production rights for Children of a Lesser God are held by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.

A movie version of the Children of a Lesser God was produced in 1986 with Marlee Matlin and James Hurt playing the lead roles.

Google Books offers a preview of portions of the Children of a Lesser God script.