By: Sue Blaustein

“Explosive Encounters” was the theme at the November 9 Deaf Story Slam at Anodyne Coffee. Misunderstandings in encounters with the hearing world are a constant in the lives of Deaf members of our community. Seven tellers touched on ways they’ve been aggravated and thwarted, grown and thrived from these challenges.

Emcees Brian Peters and Alyson Urdahl opened with a very short course on ASL (American Sign Language) for hearing members of the audience. ASL is not an oral language. Users aren’t “spelling” out words. They showed us how to clap and show appreciation; and how to sign the emotions of the words “pah”, “shock”, “cool” and “kiss-fist”.

The evening’s first teller, Dana Callan-Farley, opted to tell his story without interpretation. He had a good friend – Doug – who taught gym at the same New York City residential school for the deaf where Dana taught English. One night, Doug told Dana to meet him outside. Dana went out and found his friend changed into something completely different. The rest of the story was not translated but we encourage you to watch the video of Dana’s story and enjoy Dana’s animated storytelling yourself! (see video below)

Ash Radonski, our next teller, reluctantly agreed to join some college friends in a session with the fortune-telling OUIJA board many years ago. They were a bit uncomfortable and skeptical, but the planchette (indicator) they touched moved and spelled. It was a tough time for Ash because their father wasn’t well. The board spelled out a date – which turned out to be the date their father passed. Since then, Ash has been attuned to signs and visitants – like Monarch butterflies in odd places – around them. Ash feels their father’s presence in their life and stays open to messages that come to them in unusual ways.

When Charlotte Kinney returned to Milwaukee to go to UWM, she found a roommate to share a very tiny, cheap apartment with. Reba – her roommate – had a striking appearance, no experience being around Deaf people, and two cats. One of them – Horace – loved to chew on plastic. That became a problem when he got ahold of one of Charlotte’s hearing aids. Charlotte got a temporary replacement at the UWM Audiology clinic, a bright orange one that blared from her ear! She expected Reba to pay for a new hearing aid since her cat had ruined the old one. Reba resisted and it wasn’t going well. At that point, Charlotte removed her hearing aids – a foolproof way to tune out her stubborn roommate’s arguments.

Everyone in Andy Altmann’s devout Catholic family was Deaf. Still, he felt different, like he didn’t fit. Coming out to himself and others as gay was a long process. Along the way, he left to live among hearing people; and studied at UWM. He experienced violence and abuse. Leaving Milwaukee for South Florida, and meeting his husband there opened up a new, joyful chapter in his life. Now that he feels like he can be fully himself, he chooses to integrate all his experiences – good and bad­ – and live as a survivor, not a victim.

Melani Kaplan spent her early childhood “mainstreamed” in classrooms with hearing children. She felt left out, like no one really knew who she was. When she discovered a drama group for deaf kids at age 12, she knew she’d found her calling! She took her passion to one local theater, then another. Still, she often felt that offstage, people didn’t really know her.

In the theater program at the University of Illinois Champaign, she encountered teachers who didn’t have the will or understanding to adapt certain acting exercises for a non-hearing person. Exercises like having class members retrieve an object tossed on the floor while they were blindfolded…using sound to figure out where they were. Melanie identifies this attitude as “Audism” – an obliviousness on the part of hearing people.

Melani Kaplan tells story using ASL

Marika Kovacs-Houlihan told us about the wonderful times she had in New Zealand when she traveled with the basketball team for the Deaf Olympics. Her company of world-class athletes had so much fun, that on their last day, they rented a van together to get the absolute most out of their remaining time – a ten-hour layover. The adventures they packed in included getting lost, shattering the van window at a speed bump, and making it to the gate JUST in time. She’ll never forget the bonding and shared excitement.

Storyteller in black shirt and short blonde hair tells story using ASL

Jonathan Peterman (JP) shared a travel story too. He joined his family on a trip to Savannah and Charleston. His sister teaches Black studies, and JP is a history buff, so it was a meaningful tour. There were special pleasures, like the luxurious Air BNB they stayed at, and incredible barbecue. He described the humid air and distinct architecture.

But the landscape was full of triggers, with historical sites related to America’s trade in human beings. JP felt physically sick from the anger he felt. His anger dissipated, but he still grapples with mixed feelings about who to trust with his feelings and reflections. Who will learn…who will exploit?

Storyteller in grey shirt and black cap uses ASL on stage

Throughout the evening, tellers alluded to feelings of not being seen or known. JP, as a Black and Deaf person, chooses his words with care. But he’s also stepped up to lead and communicate, providing a bridge for us to find more common ground. The shared hope that explosive joy can be in the mix animated the entire evening!


Storytellers sign 'applause' on stage