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The City Journals

American Sign Language Students Perform Play About Depression, Suicide and School Violence Entirely in ASL

Mar 09, 2016 12:23PM ● By Bryan Scott

By Kelly Cannon | [email protected]

Cottonwood - Holladay - Students at Skyline High School took on the difficult task of performing in “Bang, Bang You’re Dead” on Jan. 29 and 30. The play, written by William Mastrosimore, is about a school shooter and the ghosts of his victims. Other themes include depression, suicide and bullying. The subject matter alone makes the play challenging. However, this version is performed entirely in American Sign Language. 

 The student actors are all in ASL classes at the high school. The dialogue was performed in sign language with other actors providing the voice so all abilities could enjoy the play. Teacher Jody Linn Tolley explained her students needed practice “speaking” in ASL.

“The students need to take it to another level,” Tolley said.

The audience during the shows was divided nearly evenly between hearing individuals and the deaf community. In addition to the traditional applause at the end of the show, member of the deaf community raised their hands and shook them, the ASL sign for applause. 

Tolley learned about the play from her sister, Katie Leclerc, whose friend was one of the victims of the Columbine shootings in 1999. Leclerc performed the play when she was younger and described the experience to Tolley as a turning point in her life. Tolley and her students chose the play because of its strong themes of school violence and bullying.

“We talked about it and we decided we’re not going to make a play. We’re going to make a difference,” Tolley said. 

The play focuses on Josh, a young man who murders his parents and five of his classmates during a school shooting. While in jail, the ghosts of his victims haunt him, replaying times in his life where he was rejected, bullied and humiliated. The ghosts pester him, reminiscing of what they miss from their life, what they’ll never get to do now they’re dead and continually asking Josh, “Why me?” forcing Josh to confront the consequences of his decisions.

Each of the actors technically played two roles. Their main role was the character they act and sign for. The other role was providing the voice for other actors who were signing. For instance, Matt Smith acted and signed for the character Michael. Smith also provided the vocal dialogue for Matt, who was acted and signed by Sterling Kerr. The student actors therefore had to memorize both their signing lines and their vocal lines. 

Eighteen-year-old Jake Bergeson had the difficult task of playing Josh. However, Bergeson said he could relate to Josh in some ways. 

“I’ve been bullied before and I’ve felt alone,” Bergeson said. “I’ve dealt with depression so I know what it’s like to feel like it’s you against the world. What Josh does, it isn’t the right thing but I can understand.”

Bergeson said his favorite part of the production was working with his fellow ASL classmates. 

“It created this very strong bond that has been outstanding,” Bergeson said. 

Seventeen-year-old Jillian Garry played Emily, a childhood friend of Josh who is also one of his victims. Garry has been studying ASL for almost three years. 

“I really like acting and ASL is a lot about facial expression,” Garry said. “I thought it’d be a good thing to try.”

Because of the double roles the actors had to take on, Garry said the production was harder to grasp than most plays. On top of that, the subject matter was also difficult to tackle successfully. 

“It was very emotional and trying,” Garry said. “At the end of the play, nearly everyone is in tears.” 

Like Bergeson, Garry’s favorite part of putting on the production was getting to know her fellow ASL classmates. 

“We’re like a family,” Garry said. “Performing together is just icing on the cake.”