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               “Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no

               Where did all the blue skies go?

               Poison is the wind that blows

               from the north and south and east

               Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy farther

               Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no”

                                             -Marvin Gaye

As a person living with a severe to profound hearing loss from birth, I experienced something for the first time in my life this past week and I’m still smiling about it. I went to the Broadway show and I understood every single word of it.

In my life thus far, I’ve had the privilege to attend dozens of productions -musicals, plays, concerts, shorts…and while I’ve enjoyed them all so much, I’ve always struggled to understand what was being said, what the context was, what the songs were expressing.

“Miss Saigon”, “Cats”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “Rent”, “Chicago, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Mama Mia!”, The Vagina Monologues

Tina Turner, U2, Violent Femmes, The Temptations, Sarah McLachlan, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, Jill Scott, Diane Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, Patti Smith, Buena Vista Social Club,  East Village Opera Company, Gregory Porter, Taj Mahal

Attending these events brought me great joy and I’ve never shied away from attending in spite of the fact that I was missing out on a major component.  Instead, I would focus on watching movement, observing faces, interpret music  in my own way -even so far as to imagine what was being said as empathetically as I could. In a sense, I would create my own version of the production in my head with the information available to me through my four and a half senses.

Plays could be researched beforehand to help provide context and those who attended with me would do their best to fill me in as the production progressed.  Some larger venues would have enormous monitors throughout, displaying a performer’s face so that I could catch snatches here and there.  In many cases, I would even recognize favorite songs -those I would know the lyrics by heart and could “hear” from memory. U2’s “With or Without You”, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, The Temptations’  “Just My Imagination”

Watching the expressions on other concert goers’ faces would fill me with happiness and  sometimes if I was lucky I could read their lips as they sang along -my own private interpreters.  Elaborate costumes, gorgeous choreography and the energy of the crowd provided me with an incredible experience in itself. A different kind, yes, and without words but still so beautiful in its unique way.

               “You’ve given me a true love,

               and every day I thank you love

               For a feeling that’s so new

               So inviting, so exciting

               Whenever you’re near

               I hear a symphony

               A tender melody

               Pulling me closer

               Closer to your arms”

                              -Diana Ross

This past Tuesday evening, all of that changed.  My partner and I attended the incredible Mo’town The Musical -a production we’ve wanted to see for quite some time as we know one of the lead performers but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand most of it, my partner did not want to attend as she felt this was unfair to me.

And then we found out that this particular performance was open-captioned. So we jumped at the opportunity.

Thanks to an amazing organization called the Theatre Development Fund, Mo’town and scores of other theatre  productions are made open captioned for a selected number of performances.  A text display stationed at the side of the stage provides a simultaneous transcription of dialogue and lyrics during a live performance. Because I don’t know sign language, this was the perfect solution for me -along with thousands of others who are hard-of-hearing.

When we reached our seats and took our coats off, moments before the lights dimmed, I scanned the crowd and noticed dozens of people wearing hearing-aids and cochlear implant devices all around me.  Suddenly, as the theatre darkened, bright orange words flashed on a rectangular screen to the left of the stage as a song -one of 59 began, accompanied by a booming 18-piece orchestra.  “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You”, “Dancing in the Streets”, “War”, “My Guy”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”…and so many more.  And I could understand every single word the performers were singing and saying.

Overwhelmingly happy, I cried.

               “You and I must make a pact

               We must bring salvation back,

               Where there is love, I’ll be there.

               I’ll reach out my hand to you

               I’ll have faith in all you do.

               Just call my name and I’ll be there.

               I’ll be there to comfort you,

               Build my world of dreams around you,

               I’m so glad that I found you.”

                              –Berry Gordy

As the story moved along and the action shifted about on the stage, in synchronous movement my head along with dozens of others around me swung back and forth from the screen back to the stage, reading quickly and then watching the performers.  Several were clapping along, many were smiling and all of us could understand.  Being able to read the words made the musical experience so much richer.  This time -for me costumes and stage decorations were icing on the cake and the choreography was so much more fun – simply because I was able to “hear” the words to the songs to which they were dancing.

Since first introducing this service to Broadway in 1997, there have been over 46,000 admissions to TDF open captioned performances. More information on this amazing organization can be found here.