Living the same life as us, but in a different way
by Dani Kaslow
For most people, starting one’s career as a Deaf education teacher, obtaining a master’s degree in counseling followed by a doctorate in higher and adult education before ultimately settling into writing and acting would seem like an unusual path. For Arlene Malinowski, writer and performer of the autobiographical solo show Aiming for Sainthood, it was a logical progression. “Everything I’ve done career-wise has fed into the next thing,” she said in a recent telephone interview. First and foremost, Malinowski sees herself as an educator. “Writing and sharing my story and my family’s story are just educating in a different way.”
Malinowski’s parents are Deaf, with a capital D. In Deaf culture, a “Deaf” person is someone with a hearing loss who is part of the Deaf community and uses American Sign Language. A “deaf” person is someone who has a significant hearing loss, but who is not culturally Deaf. Although she is hearing, Malinowski grew up in the Deaf community, straddling (and often bridging) the worlds of mainstream American culture and Deaf culture.
The role of hearing children in Deaf families often involves taking on adult responsibilities at a young age as the children are called on to interpret the conversations and the cultural differences of the adults around them. Aiming for Sainthood is the second in Malinowski’s trilogy of full-length solo shows about her experiences as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). When asked if she, like many other CODA’s, ever went through a period of rebelling against her role in the family and its responsibilities, Malinowski laughed and said, “it’s all in my first show, What Does the Sun Sound Like. That show is about growing up CODA and coming to the realization of ‘that’s my tribe.’” Although some of her duties were unique, Malinowski thinks she was similar to most other teenagers. “I think every kid goes through some kind of rebellion. Mine manifested itself as ‘do I have to?’ (interpret or whatever), but I think every kid goes through it in some way or other. I got wild, but I wasn’t a bad child.”
Aiming for Sainthood is billed as “a solo play for Deaf and hearing audiences,” and is told in sign language and voice. Director Richard Perez does not know American Sign Language, but Malinowski doesn’t see Perez’s inability to sign as negatively impacting the process. “It is different, in that it is solo work, especially autobiographical solo work, so the [actor-director] relationship is much more collaborative,” said Malinowski. She also praised Perez’s efforts to learn about Deaf culture. “He’s been great trying to learn about Deaf culture. It’s opened a great world for him to start understanding what Deaf culture is. He’s been just great.”
It isn’t only her director who has earned Malinowski’s respect in this area. “I am humbled by hearing people who have stepped across their comfort line to communicate [with Deaf individuals]. I am grateful for every hearing person who has tried to sign, or gesture, or write a note, because I know it’s hard. I know it is. I am awed by their ability to be kind and to make contact.”
Malinowski challenges audiences to learn about Deaf culture while they’re being entertained. Though a Deaf family is beyond the experience of most audience members, she has been surprised to find how many people could relate to her story. She has been approached by several people whose first exposure to Deaf culture was through her work who say, “that’s my story!”
Malinowski has found that the struggles of children of first generation immigrants can especially reflect similar experiences she went through. Linguistic and cultural differences within a single family are themes common to immigrant and Deaf/hearing families. Malinowski can relate to the need to find an identity within a culture that some immigrants feel. “My first show is primarily about finding identity, in my case as a CODA.”
Malinowski said initially people were shocked that “my family life is so normal,” but she was pleasantly surprised to find how quickly audiences seemed to understand that. “Aside from the flashing lights for the doorbell and the waving of the hands,” family life in Malinowski’s house growing up was “like anybody else’s.”
The universality of human experience, while the details may differ, seems to be part of Malinowski’s larger message. “I would want people to know that everyone does have a story, but we have stopped listening to each other. Hopefully, through my work, people will start listening to each other. In the Deaf community, because storytelling is such a high art, their stories are passed from hand to hand to hand and the Deaf community embraces that storytelling. Deaf culture has done that right. They’ve passed their culture and their history from hand to hand. Really, in the end, we all live the same lives, just in many different ways.”
Malinowski has acting credits in theater, television, and film. In addition to the trilogy of which Aiming for Sainthood is a part, Malinowski has written and starred in three solo one-act plays which she has performed in multiple venues. For now, Chronic, the third show in Malinowski’s trilogy, is in the conceptual stages. She continues to educate, and not only through her solo shows. Malinowski has taught at colleges throughout the country and currently teaches solo intensives in her studio in addition to teaching at Chicago Dramatists, where she is Resident Playwright.
Theatergoers will have the opportunity to see Aiming for Sainthood this weekend at Millennium Park as part of the In the Works series. Aiming for Sainthood will be produced later this season at Victory Gardens Theater’s new Studio Theater in Chicago.
Aiming For Sainthood
About the Play
When her Deaf mother gets cancer, a middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: “Where is God?” and “Who took my Springsteen poster?”
The hearing daughter of devout Deaf parents must navigate through the cross-cultural maze of the medical world, the Deaf world, and the world beyond. This story is about parents and children, Deaf and hearing, love and forgiveness, faith and tolerance, and finding yourself amid the clash of cultures we call America.
Through this autobiographical, one-woman play, Ms. Malinowski shares her heritage. It is told through both sign language and voice, using both Deaf and hearing storytelling techniques. It challenges audiences to share a world beyond their experiences: the culture of Deafness – a community of people defined not by their disability but by their shared language, perspective and values – a community which believes, “We aren’t broke – so don’t try to fix us.”
Thursday, March 25, Friday, March 26 and Saturday, March 27. All shows at 7:30pm.
NOTE: With the In the Works series, audiences have a chance to sit on the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, experiencing works in development by local theater artists or companies. The series is supported by a grant from Boeing Charitable Trust.