Jewish Journal

Rage Becomes Power in Writer’s Hands

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on May. 3, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Phyllis Frelich, left, Samantha Schwartz, center, and Deanna Bray are featured in "Road to a Revolution."

Phyllis Frelich, left, Samantha Schwartz, center, and Deanna Bray are featured in "Road to a Revolution."

"I still write a lot from anger," playwright Mark Medoff said. "I've wanted to flagellate the world."

Medoff, 61, is the author of the smoldering plays "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" "Children of a Lesser God" and "Road to a Revolution," now at Deaf West Theatre. His intense work often rails against a world he perceives as rife with violence, racism and sexism. Several childhood memories fuel the rage, he revealed during a telephone interview from his New Mexico ranch.

As a boy, he sensed his family lived in a small Illinois town because his Jewish physician father couldn't find work anyplace else. During summers at a Jewish camp in Georgia, Medoff said bigotry was as palpable as "a compression in the air." After the family relocated to Florida, he learned that his father had to beg an official to grant him a medical license because the Jewish quota was filled. "My father cried in front of this man," the author said bitterly. "I saw him turned away from door after door. All of that has long been boiling in me."

No wonder Medoff's work rants against every kind of injustice. A shabbily dressed Vietnam veteran spurs the action in "Red Ryder," about violence and American values in the '60s. A paraplegic Jewish veteran spews bigotry in "Stumps." A deaf woman refuses to be patronized in "Children of a Lesser God," which won Medoff a Tony and was made into an Oscar-winning film.

Now comes "Road to a Revolution," in which three generations of women (some hearing, some not), face off against the backdrop of the 1988 uprising of deaf students at Gallaudet University. It's the fifth play Medoff has written for actress Phyllis Frelich; his goal, as usual, is incendiary.

"In 'Children,' there is a revolt by a deaf woman against her hearing husband," he said. "In 'Road,' the revolt leads to a kind of detente between the deaf students and the hearing board and, by extension, between hearing culture and deaf culture."

Medoff, ironically, didn't rebel against the jock culture of his Miami Beach high school. A star athlete, he remained a closet writer lest he be considered effeminate, he said. He wasn't above some smug assumptions of his own, however. "I had this clichéd vision of the deaf as those people who sold the little alphabet cards at airports," he admitted.

In the late 1970s, when colleagues told him about an amazing deaf actress named Phyllis Frelich, he thought, "Everyone was overcompensating because she was this poor, handicapped individual."

Yet hours after he had met Frelich, Medoff was so impressed that he announced he was going to write a play for her.

Frelich smiled politely. "I thought to myself, 'Yeah, sure,'" she told The Journalin sign language, speaking through her hearing husband, Bob Steinberg, a set designer. Surprisingly, Medoff came through. "But we hated the play," Frelich said. "The main character was just so furious about her deafness."

Undaunted, Medoff affably tore the pages to shreds in front of the couple and invited them to work on a new play at his New Mexico state university theater department. Frelich and Steinberg accepted the offer.

"We bought an old, rusty Ford van for $600, loaded up the kids and drove out West," Steinberg recalled. By the end of the semester, the trio had created the drama that would help put deaf theater on the map.

"Road" began when Medoff was glued to the television news of the Gallaudet uprising in 1988. When the deaf college's board elected yet another hearing president, enraged students protested and succeeded in reversing the decision. The appointment of Gallaudet's first deaf president became the cornerstone of the deaf civil rights movement. It was Medoff's kind of story.

He initially envisioned a film (he wrote the screenplays of "Clara's Heart" and "City of Joy"), but was rejected at every studio in town. In one meeting, a young executive told Medoff, "There's already been a deaf movie." The disgusted author eventually decided to develop the story as a play.

It's not just a piece about deaf people, he insists. While the play focuses on the Gallaudet uprising, the character of Edna (Frelich), who is initially timid, reminds Medoff of his father, hat in hand, in the Florida state official's office. "She is like all my relatives who were afraid of their own shadow, afraid to offend, to present their positions as Jews," he said. "But the play is universal. It could be about the Latino experience or any other experience, because everyone feels isolated and the need to rebel at some point in their lives."

For tickets to the show, which runs through May 27, call (818) 762-2773 or 762-2782 (TTY).

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