Giving voice to silence

It’s an unusual start to a phone interview: For one thing, Camille Jeter, the interviewee, is not on the other end of the line. Instead, I am speaking to A Dreamer, who tells me that Jeter refuses to answer my first question.

But even though it takes me a moment to adjust, the scenario is workaday fare for Jeter, an actress who’s co-artistic director of the internationally renowned National Theater of the Deaf, and A Dreamer, her interpreter and the company’s manager.

I catch up with the pair in their New Jersey hotel room, fresh from a performance at Montclair State College and soon to depart for their next tour date. Jeter — who is part of the fourth generation of deaf people in her family — speaks in her native American Sign Language while Dreamer translates for me over the phone.

And to be fair, Jeter’s hardly the first actress to shun an inquiry like the one I open with.

“How old am I? You want to know my age?! What kind of question is that?!” she says, mock-incredulously. “That’s a very bad question! No comment! Next question, please!” There is laughter from Jeter, Dreamer and NTD actress and dancer Deb’e Taylor, who’s with them in the room.

But from this point on, Jeter is more than forthcoming about her own background, NTD’s history, and the company’s current East Coast tour — featuring an innovative, multi-media production of Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen’s “everyman” play, Peer Gynt.

“The play itself has many aspects to it — it’s a story about someone finding himself through his strange adventures in the world, which everyone can relate to — and this production has many aspects to it,” notes Jeter.

“In all of our productions, you can see and hear every word: There are actors and actresses signing and speaking all the words. And in Peer Gynt, we are also using music, dance, puppets … there’s a lot going on. And we all have lots of roles to play, which makes it even more challenging. I play the Mother of the Groom, Anitra — a slave girl, the Mysterious Passenger, a monkey, a lunatic … you see what I mean!” she adds, laughing.

In reviews from small-town to big-city papers, NTD’s production of Peer Gynt — a collaboration with the acclaimed Pilobolus Dance Theater — has garnered whopping kudos. Directed by Pilobolus co-founder and director Robby Barnett and Will Rhys of NTD, the show features J Ranelli’s adapted translation of Ibsen’s epic poem, brought to life by a large cast of actors simultaneously signing, speaking and using physical movement. Powerful music by composer Genji Ito — played on myriad drums, rattles and other instruments — and intriguing lighting and scenery complete the spectacle. The New York Times called Darby Jared Leigh, who plays Peer himself, “a virtuoso of an exuberant actor,” and praise for the rest of the ensemble has been similarly high.

Of course, such success is nothing new for the National Theater of the Deaf, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, or for Jeter, now in her 11th season of national and international touring with the Tony Award-winning company.

Like other NTD members, Jeter boasts an impressive resume. Having acted in school productions of Shakespeare at the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, Jeter pursued her interest in theater while studying graphic arts at the Technical Institute for the Deaf, part of the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. After a semester at the Institute, she was called to join the cast of the Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God; since then, she has appeared in several television shows, among them NBC’s Law and Order, and performed with many off-Broadway theaters and deaf-theater companies like Fairmount Theatre of the Deaf (now Cleveland Signstage).

“The National Theater of the Deaf was the first organization to really educate hearing people about deaf people,” Jeter explains. “Thirty years ago, so many hearing people weren’t even aware of anything about deaf people … hearing people were handicapped about deafness.

“When the National Theater of the Deaf began, people began to come to performances and appreciate all this talent that they saw. So I think that [NTD] helped make sure that hearing people understood that [deaf people] are not freaks. It provided the first opportunity for deaf people to become professional actors. It made and I think it continues to make big changes in the way that people understand deaf people. It opened a lot of door for all of us.”

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