As Kumar Singh takes the stage at The Venue in Orlando, some audience members are still finishing their conversations. Singh rallies the crowd and makes a plea for a round of applause. Most of the hands in the audience go up and wave. Not satisfied with the energy in the room, Singh repeats his request emphatically. This time, all the hands go up.
All of this happens more or less silently, with Singh and audience communicating in American Sign Language.
Singh, 36, is the host and founder of ASL Slam Orlando, an organization which produces live poetry and storytelling events for the deaf community. “ASL Slam is an open stage for the community,” he writes in an email interview. “Deaf audiences, interpreters, ASL students, and signers participate and show their unique talent in ASL.”
Singh first encountered the idea of an ASL Slam in his native New York at the famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
“I loved the idea of an event where the ASL community come together … [with] storytelling, improvisation, poems, ABC stories, jokes and visual vernacular,” said Singh. “I asked Douglas [Ridloff, founder of ASL Slam] if I could set up here in Orlando and he gave me advice.”
Incidentally, Ridloff’s wife Lauren is set to be the first deaf actress in a Marvel movie in “Eternals” due out in 2020.
ASL Slam Orlando began in August 2017. In the past two years, Singh has coordinated more than a dozen events. Some of these brought in feature performers from around the country such as Texas storyteller Justin Perez who performed at The Venue.
The performance at times resembled mime work. “In ASL poem/ABC storytelling, it is not possible to translate to English because it is a visual art,” said Singh.
An ASL teacher at Windermere High School, Singh notes that the language has its own set of literary devices. But even non-signing attendees of ASL Slam performances can pick up on a lot of what is being said. “You could use your imagination when the performer uses visual vernacular, body language, facial expression and handshapes.”
“When it comes to a performance, the interpreter will be voice off and allow hearing people to focus on the visuals, not hearing,” he said. “They can learn new experiences of what ASL is like. Everyone is always welcomed! They might be surprised at the silence in the room.”
Accessibility for the deaf at art community art events continues to be a struggle, but Singh says the problem is more widespread than people might realize. Born deaf himself, he points to difficulties in bridging deaf and hearing communities in early education.
“I attended a deaf school where I acquired [ASL] and my parents tried to learn how to sign,” he said. “Most deaf children have experience with language deprivation due to a lack of resources and awareness.”