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Hearing impaired can also enjoy show

An actor's mother will sign the musical at a special performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


Denise Henderson learned sign language skills almost by accident.

"My husband was going to the New Orleans seminary, and I had to get a job to pay the bills," Mrs. Henderson said. The job was in the office that administered programs for deaf students at Delgado Community College.

"I asked if I could take a course in deaf interpretation," she said. That led to six more classes, a total of 21 credit hours.

In the 23 years since then, Mrs. Henderson has used her skills to help hearing-impaired friends during visits to the doctor and personal counselors and to build a deaf ministry at the church where her husband is pastor, the Eagle's Landing Baptist Church on Ridge Road in Port Richey. Recently, she translated the entire Old and New Testaments into American Sign Language for an 18-month Bible study course at her church.

On April 28, she'll use her signing skills to interpret the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, being presented by River Ridge drama students at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge. The signed show is at 2 p.m. (See related story.)

"We're so excited to be doing this for the first time," said Lori Erickson, stage director and drama teacher at River Ridge. "We have a group of 10 coming all the way from Jacksonville to see this."

Another 20 hearing-impaired people already have bought tickets. A special section is being roped off for them. Mrs. Henderson will stand in front of them with her back to the stage so they can follow her signing and watch the action on the stage at the same time.

Mrs. Henderson explains how she got the job signing the play.

"My daughter, Allison, plays Napthali's wife in (Joseph)," she said. "Lori and I were talking casually one day after a performance here. She didn't know I knew sign language. She asked if I would be able to sign a performance here."

Shortly after that, Mrs. Henderson got a copy of the script for Joseph.

"I have completely rewritten it in American Sign Language," she said, a chore that took more than four weeks.

Unlike Signed Exact English, which spells out each word letter-for-letter using the fingers, American Sign Language uses large, sometimes swooping arm and full hand movements to denote whole words. Many similar words have the same sign.

For example, the words "famous" and "success" use both hands in an upward gesture with a little counterclockwise twirl of the index finger slightly above the head. When one stanza in Joseph uses both words, Mrs. Henderson does one backward twirl for the first word and two twirls for the second.

Other sentences are shortened.

The script may say "It's just that I have not been wrong before." Mrs. Henderson will sign, "But, me? Never wrong before."

Obscure references are translated into familiar descriptions

In one scene, a butler is described as being "The Jeeves of his time."

"Jeeves doesn't mean anything to a deaf person," Mrs. Henderson said. "So I made it "the famous and best' of his time."

For one of the show's numbers, Mrs. Henderson taught the middle school Kids' Chorus and the Narrators to sign Pharaoh's Story.

"We had to do some improvising for that," she said.

In addition to translating the dialogue into ASL, Mrs. Henderson also learned the tempo of each musical number and the movements of each actor on the stage. That way, she can turn her own body to match that of the speaker on stage to help people know which character is speaking.

Will this be the only show she ever signs at the school?

"I am always very involved with being with my kids," she said.

"But I'll (sign plays) even when (Allison) graduates from high school, because of the deaf people. I have such a burden in my heart to sign to the deaf."

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