Brighton Fringe 2021
Written and directed by Joe Friedman, and mounted at Sweet Productions’ Old Steine Main venue. Lighting and Stage Management Rosa Sweeting of the SweetVenues team. Till June 27th. Is to tour to Edinburgh and may return to Brighton, Look out for it.
A calm man of 71, a psychotherapist we learn, speaks to us and tells us we’re going to hear something perhaps very unpleasant. A recording of a baby crying, then a cacophony of many babies briefly fills the small space. It’s in fact the only theatrical coup we get, but everything after is more remarkable.
Deaf Ears: How I Learned To Hear, written and performed by Joe Friedman in a typically self-deprecating title. Friedman’s been translating hearing for all his life. No, he’s not deaf. His parents were.
Friedman first learns as a baby that no-one will come unless he comes to them and then bawls. These lessons tilt you at an odd angle to the universe. The serio-comic modes of upbringing, translating what the teacher says to the loud (because deaf)n parent at the PTA meeting, the feints of mishearing or being listened to as opposed to hearing, all are deftly unskiened. Friedman delves into his mother’s background Viennese and her own mother’s shame at her. This is different to the father’s family with two of tree deaf children wanting the best for his deaf children determined they should be normalised, thus sign language in both cases was verboten.
What Friedman has to impart beyond this is subtler, yet he does it with comic aplomb: an actor’s mimicry that’d have you believe he’s ben an actor all his life.
And he started as a university playwright. Inspired by a title from a friend he creates a play with parts for his deaf parents, which work beautifully as a script. But as he says ‘in writing you can have the end you want’. His parents read it and never want to hear of it again. ‘You’re not listening to me’ he bemoans his fate.
Second lesson in listening comes when in 1969, at 19 in Chicago (Friedman dons a tie-dye shirt his second prop draped over a chair he never otherwise uses), he and friends fall foul of Governor Daly’s curfew laws for the young after the anti-Vietnam riots. They’re in the park, it’s hot. They want to stay. Curfews repeatedly sound. Then instead of legging it the young Joe runs up to the patrol car and confronts the policemen with his giant acid-brain insight: ‘the beaches are free for everyone… the parks are free for everyone.’ His friends shrink but a crowd forms. Amazingly this works. Freidman’s superb at accenting the gruff policeman baffled by this ‘good kid battling his two heads like a shuttlecock a like a pro he moves from side to side. The policemen finally relents and – pushing it as Joe does – finally lets everyone stay. Friedman has been heard.
The final lesson’s one of a patient who goes to extremes like dangling her legs out of the second storey window, about to jump or finally running out of the room (he’d have to physically throw her out before) until finally she gets through to him. This scene is spellbinding and I won’t spoil it.
These three lessons in listening, overhearing in Harold Bloom’s definition of Shakespeare’s ‘invention of the human’ are the core of his story. And being published at 58, finally, a children’s book derived from telling tales to his daughter after he refused Little Pony schamltz any more. What Friedman concludes from his fictions are eminelty worth hearing.
Despite the adroit showmanship of that cry, Friedman proceeds without gimmickry as a spellbinding storyteller with accents and expressions both humane and deeply learned in the lives he’s immersed himself in listening to. Grounding that in learning to hear deaf people, is an experience to walk enhanced from.
Deaf Ears: How I Learned To Hear is to tour to Edinburgh and may return to Brighton, Look out for it.