Peter Cook stood on the center of the stage, the audience circled around him. He pointed to the left side of the room and twenty pairs of arms immediately went up in the air. He pointed to the right side of the room and twenty other pairs of arms flew up. While it might not be obvious to the casual passerby, the audience members were tossing an invisible beach ball across the room under Cook’s direction.
This one exercise in channeling a person’s imagination, however, was just the beginning. Cook proceeded to entertain the audience for the next hour and a half with animated personal stories about his first kiss, his time at school, and his American Sign Language students, among other anecdotes—all without saying a single word.
Cook, a prominent deaf storyteller-poet, performed at the Agassiz Theatre on February 12 to close out Harvard College’s “Deaf Awareness Week.” Coordinated by the Committee on Deaf Awareness (CODA), the event aimed at “promoting and understanding the deaf community.”
”It is a really important life lesson to meet people from different backgrounds,” said West A. Resendes ’12, the director of CODA. “The deaf community is relatively unknown. But the unique experiences of deaf people should be shared with everyone.”
The various events, which took place February 8-12, included a lecture by deaf politician Kevin Nolan, a panel discussion entitled “Growing Up Deaf,” and a social “Snack n’ Sign” event in Ticknor lounge. According to Resendes, Cook’s performance, was the “anchor” to these string of programs.
“People will come for Peter Cook,” Resendes said. “In the deaf community, he is the man.”
Cook’s act did provide a unique glimpse into the deaf community and culture. His stories, such as one about learning how to dance, provided interesting insight into the lives of deaf people.
“People don’t know that deaf people can dance,” Cook signed during his performance.
Using a mixture of facial expressions, gestures, and ASL, which was interpreted for non-ASL speakers, he amused the audience with descriptions of his gym teacher pounding a large stick on the ground so he and the other deaf students could feel the beats of the music. As his story showed, deaf people can dance; they just have to do it in different ways, whether it involves using their pulse to detect the rhythm of the music or feeling the pounding beat with the aid of an overly enthusiastic gym teacher.
For non-ASL speakers, the performance itself was interesting in its own right. For once the tables had turned, as they were now the ones who depended on the interpreter to understand what was being said. At times, this was difficult. When the room would shake with laughter and applause, the punch line of the joke would often disappear in the wake of the noise, leaving non ASL speakers at a loss.
While at one point in the show Cook assured his audience that his act would be “a very visual story,” some audience members still found it difficult to follow along with the action. For example, one little boy sitting in the back row would repeatedly ask his mother in a loud whisper to explain what was going on.
“You have to use your eyes,” she said. “Use your eyes to see the story.”
Cook touched upon this idea of adjustment with his last anecdote, a sad story about his second kiss. He explained how a girl he liked as a kid turned him down because, as she said, they “couldn’t communicate.”
But what Cook successfully points out is that there are many ways to communicate, and the problem only arises when a person is not willing to make the necessary effort to adapt.
“It takes two to tango,” he signed.
After all, Cook himself has adapted the art of storytelling for deaf audiences. The stories he tells does not become imbued with life through the way he speaks but with the way he moves.
“The beauty of Peter Cook is his ability to capture emotions… [he is] able to express them in a way that is unspoken, but is still accessible to everyone,” Resendes said.