Culture

Follow the Signs review – an exuberant exploration of the life of a young Black Deaf man

The music is blasting at top volume and performers moving to its electronic beat before this exuberant hour of gig theatre has even begun. It is a beguilingly upbeat start to a story that has great trauma at its centre. “Once upon a time there was a boy from down the road / He contracted meningitis at the age of two years old,” begins Chris Fonseca, its writer who signs and dances his early life story with a guileless charm, while co-writer, Harry Jardine, lends his voice as the narrator (he also directs and performs).

Being a young Black Deaf man, he is marooned in a hostile hearing world in which even his BSL interpreters look nothing like him (his words are most often spoken by white women, he says). As a young boy, he “felt like the universe was against me”. That he loved dance music rendered him even more of an aberration, desperate to meet a like-minded soul – which he does in Raphi (Raphaella Julien), his “G”, whose story of being a Deaf mixed heritage female is signed by her and spoken by DJ Gaia Ahuja.

A like-minded soul … Raphaella Julien as Raphi.
A like-minded soul … Raphaella Julien as Raphi. Photograph: Phoebe Capewell

As a production, the story is signed and spoken, with captions on a back screen. The music, composed by Yacoub Didi and ranging from house to hip-hop and beat-boxing – is simply storming and the dance comes in expressive choreography from Fonseca.

It takes us into the intersections around Black male identity in a way that is rarely explored on stage, at least in front of a mixed Deaf and hearing audience. Fonseca contends with multiple prejudices, taking to the school playground where bullies taunt him for being both Black and Deaf, even as his teachers deny his lived experience of racism.

There are visits to the hospital, lessons with a passive aggressive speech therapist (Ahuja plays her dressed in a clown’s wig), and an operation for a cochlear implant accompanied by a great storm of sound combined with elongated silences so that it almost feels immersive. Fonseca leavens the darker moments with comedy, which gives this show a surprising warmth and joyousness.

The narrative seeks to teach some of us the BSL alphabet in a melodic rap, which has the clearly stated intention to educate, but slows the story down and gives Deaf audience members little to do.

The issues themselves feel both pressing and under-represented on mainstream stages but they cannot all be unpicked within this short hour and Julien’s secondary tale, which bears its own distinct issues (she is often told she is not Black enough or Deaf enough) is too brief. The main story’s arc does not go far enough either and seems to end abruptly. But in its most dramatic moments you will be hard pressed to find a show as moving as this one, with blazing performances across the board. It is definitive proof that we need many more stories exploring the themes that Fonseca so charismatically raises.

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