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Book Report

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What is the purpose of theater? Not a question that most of us usually ask ourselves. But Stephen Baldwin’s Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf makes us ask precisely this question. For Baldwin does not simply intend for us to learn about the NTD – although certainly part of his mission is to educate us about the company. But he is also interested in making us examine the nature of theater itself by making us examine the ways in which the practice of theater is almost always bound to the practice of spoken language. But Baldwin’s questions – or at least his implications – go beyond even this, asking us to consider what the relationship between spoken (and heard) language and human communication, and humanity, is. Baldwin’s book, like the NTD itself, ask us what it means to be human, and the ways in which concepts of disability tend to make us define “fully human” far too narrowly.

Baldwin wrote this book as a sort of birthday present to the NTD on the occasion of its first quarter century. The beginning of the theater’s story begins in some sense with human civilization and the first deaf humans, but Baldwin skips much farther ahead, to his own meeting with a deaf actress, Phyllis Frelich. The two would come to collaborate on the play Children of a Lesser God, which was for many people their first encounter with the metaphorical language of American Sign Language and the complexities and richness of communication within the deaf community.

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