Deaf Everett actress, 16, stars in ACT’s ‘Sound’

SEATTLE — An actor has to understand the character she portrays, but she doesn’t have to agree with the character’s decisions.

Cheyenna Clearbrook, 16, of Everett, stars as a young deaf woman in the new Azeotrope play “Sound” at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. Deaf herself, she can empathize with her character Allison, a teen who is torn between her divorced parents over whether she should get cochlear implants, which could allow her to hear.

Allison’s deaf father, who is protective of his daughter’s participation in the close-knit deaf community, doesn’t want her to get the implants. He maintains there is nothing wrong with Allison.

The teen’s hearing mother wants her daughter to be able to communicate with spoken English as well as American Sign Language.

Allison, the character, wants the implants.

Cheyenna, the actor, does not.

“My family — my parents and my brother and sister — we’re all deaf, whereas Allison lives in both worlds,” said Cheyenna through an ASL interpreter at her family’s home earlier this week. “Allison has to convince her dad that she wants the cochlear implants. It’s a hot-button issue. I don’t want implants, so it was a challenge to come to Allison’s perspective.”

Cheyenna, a junior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, has enjoyed the past two months working with the rest of the cast, playwright Don Nguyen and directors Desdemona Chiang and Howie Seago.

Chiang is a founder of Azeotrope, a Seattle theater company that has partnered with ACT to produce “Sound.”

Seago is a well-known director and a veteran stage and TV actor. He is a company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he is its first deaf actor. His TV career includes appearances on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

It was Seago, who knows Cheyenna’s dad, who urged her to audition for “Sound.”

“It’s been really exciting to learn more about acting,” Cheyenna said. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress.”

A former model, Cheyenna has appeared previously in school plays and deaf community plays in Seattle.

“This is the big time, now,” she said with a smile.

“Sound” is set on Martha’s Vineyard, and the play includes the parallel (and alternating) story of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest 130 years ago to “cure” deafness with his hearing aid invention. Bell had come to the island because of its high percentage of deaf residents. In fact, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language played a role in the development of American Sign Language.

The stories highlight the struggle to find common ground in a world that separates deaf and hearing cultures, Cheyenna said.

“Deaf and hearing people can work together,” she said.

The production is bilingual, performed in American Sign Language and spoken English. Listening devices are available, a screen shows subtitles and Cheyanna is among the actors who have a “shadow” who speaks some of her lines.

When “Sound” rehearsals began in July, the script had to be massaged a bit, Cheyenna said.

“After the actors got involved, we realized that some of the lines didn’t match with the intent of the deaf characters,” she said. “It was great to be a part of that editing process, too. The play really is about valuing deaf culture.”

Cheyenna is earning praise and notice for her performance. And audience responses to “Sound” have been emotional, she said.

“It’s touching for the deaf audience. And some hearing audience members have cried. I think many people don’t realize the history of deaf culture in America. I hope the play brings a new understanding of the deaf perspective.”

Her teachers in the well-respected deaf program at Edmonds-Woodway gave the thumbs-up to Cheyenna’s participation in the play.

Now her career goal is to be involved in stage, TV and film.

“I would like to entertain the deaf community and also show hearing people that the deaf can do anything.”

Cheyenna may first attend her mother’s alma mater, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which is the world’s top school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students who want to pursue a liberal arts education.

If not, she plans to head to Los Angeles. There, with the help of an agent, she hopes to follow her dreams, which include performing Shakespeare’s plays.

Her parents, Greg and Joanna Clearbrook, are supportive of the plan.

Joanna and Greg first met in a play for deaf audiences when they were children. Greg, now 47, went to work for Boeing right after graduating from Edmonds High School. Joanna, 45, an alum of Roosevelt High in Seattle, is an accountant.

“I want Cheyenna to break down the wall and be an actor,” Greg said. “The first time I saw ‘Sound,’ I could see her raw talent. She took to it so fast. You know how some hearing people say that Jim Carrey’s expressions are too much? Well, the deaf community loves Jim Carrey. And Cheyenna has great expressions, too.”

Joanna, who has been to most rehearsals and performances, agreed.

“The play has been a great opportunity for Cheyenna to learn about herself and build her confidence,” her mother said. “We also like the fact that the play helps to educate people to respect each other. I have two other deaf children who I still have to remind to be patient with hearing people.”

Her siblings LeAnna, 11, and Keelan, 13, go to Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

“The play is a powerful one and the other kids enjoyed it, too,” Greg said. “Cheyenna is a role model for them.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @galefiege.

If you go

“Sound,” a new play by Don Nguyen, continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 4 at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle. Tickets are $30 general admission, $20 for seniors, $15 for students and $10 for teens and children 17 and younger. Call 206-292-7676 or go online to www.acttheatre.org.

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