Comedian performs in sign language for Burlington audience

Comedian Keith Wann performed for the Happy Hands American Sign Language club, students from the Salish Sea Deaf School, and family and friends at Burlington-Edison High School in Burlington on Jan. 18. (Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald via AP)

Comedian Keith Wann performed for the Happy Hands American Sign Language club, students from the Salish Sea Deaf School, and family and friends at Burlington-Edison High School in Burlington on Jan. 18. (Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald via AP)

By Kera Wanielstra

Skagit Valley Herald

BURLINGTON — Comedian Keith Wann owned the stage in the Burlington-Edison High School auditorium — jumping, dancing and emoting his way to laughs from the audience.

But most of the time, Wann was silent.

Though Wann can hear and speak, his first language — and the language in which he performs — is American Sign Language.

“I say English is my second language, even though I’m a hearing person,” said Wann, who is the son of two deaf parents. “That’s my goal, to bring these two worlds together.”

Wann, a California native now living in Brooklyn, was brought to Burlington-Edison by the school’s Happy Hands ASL Club.

“He’s like the Kevin Hart of the deaf world,” said Happy Hands Club member Abbey Maroney, a sophomore. “He’s really famous.”

Some of Wann’s jokes — like unplugging the vacuum while his mother was using it to see how long it would take her to notice — resonate more with the deaf community than with the hearing community, he said.

By drawing from his own experiences, he is able to give the speaking and hearing ASL students a glimpse of life as a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, reported the Skagit Valley Herald.

“It’s a great way to share culture,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Wann spoke with ASL students, who were thrilled to have him around.

“(Having Wann is) such a big deal for our school and our club,” junior Jayla Dunn said.

“And also our town,” junior Jenica Medina chimed in.

While Burlington-Edison High School has no deaf students, Dunn said she became interested in learning sign language to be able to communicate with more people.

“I was really excited to be able to make conversation with such a diverse population,” she said. “You can always have them lip read, but it’s such a deeper connection when you speak the same language.

For Wann, the students’ excitement is a sign of change. He remembers the stigma his parents faced while he was growing up.

“Now it’s cool,” he said. “If I was a teenager now, I’d get a lot more dates than I did in the ’80s.”

During his 20 years as a performer, Wann’s parents have remained an inspiration for his comedy show, he said.

“I feel like I want to sign in case my parents ever came to a show,” he said.

While his wife has served as his speaking interpreter for his comedy shows, Wann said he also often has local people — such as Happy Hands adviser Liza Bancroft — interpret sign language into speech.

“He’s so well-respected and well-known in the deaf community,” Bancroft said. “So it’s a real unique opportunity.”

Opportunity awaits the students continuing their ASL education as well, Wann said.

“You are learning our language,” Wann signed during his show. “You have two choices: You can use that language to help deaf people … or you can use it to hurt them. I know you guys want to use it to help. Really, I hope some of you become interpreters, or maybe lawyers. Or maybe you’ll work at McDonald’s.”

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