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‘Hamilton’ gets a different interpretation

By Natalie Holsten For the Idaho Press

Finally, with the musical “Hamilton” coming to Boise this week, theater enthusiasts in the Treasure Valley can be “in the room where it happens.” And a group of dedicated women is ensuring the deaf and hard of hearing community have an unforgettable theater experience through American Sign Language interpreted performances.

Holly Thomas-Mowery and LaVona Andrew are veteran ASL interpreters who have interpreted for over 100 theater productions in the Treasure Valley. “We’ve been prepping for this play a little bit over the past three years, knowing it would eventually come to Boise,” Andrew said.

Thomas-Mowery and Andrew are joined by two other interpreters for “Hamilton,” Sierra McIver and Tianna Andersen. McIver, a self-described relative newcomer to the world of performance interpreting, will interpret for the title character of Alexander Hamilton. Thomas-Mowery will primarily interpret Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler.

Andrew will cover all the other characters, except for King George, who will be interpreted by Andersen, a Black student in the ASL interpreting program at Idaho State University.

“We want this to be an authentic interpretation,” Thomas-Mowery said. “’Hamilton’ itself represents diversity in its cast nationwide, not just the Broadway original cast, and it was important to us to honor that. We are delighted that Tianna Andersen is joining us. Even though this is her first experience doing this type of work, she’s honoring us with her presence and bringing diversity to this performance.”

ASL is a true language separate from English, with its own syntax and grammar, said Davina Snow, an ASL instructor at Boise State University and a member of the deaf community. For Snow, who also has a degree in theater, ASL is her first language, and she is excited to see “Hamilton” interpreted.

“I’ve read the script and I’ve watched the show on Disney+, so I saw it in English, but I’ve never seen ‘Hamilton’ in ASL,” Snow said through an interpreter. “I’ve never seen it in my language which is what is most comfortable for all of us, the language we grew up with. Just like other people sitting in the audience who are watching in their first language from the actors; I understand it, but there’s a level of comfort in your primary language that I am really looking forward to being able to access.”

Interpreting a musical into ASL is a challenging undertaking, the interpreters said. “It’s an intricate process regardless of the genre, whether it’s a Shakespeare play or a contemporary murder mystery,” Thomas-Mowery said. “And within the genre of musicals, Hamilton is on this whole other plane.”

A mix of hip-hop, R&B and pop, “Hamilton” packs in 20,000 words and has been called the fastest musical ever written, which adds to the complexity of interpreting.

“The deaf and hard of hearing who go to the theater deserve an equivalent experience, so if we ‘wing it’ so to speak, it all just falls flat,” Thomas-Mowery explained. “The goal is that the deaf or hard of hearing theatergoer will gasp at the same time as others in the audience, will laugh at the same time, will have a tear that they’re trying to hold back at the same time. You can’t do that by winging it.”

The interpreting team has been preparing by listening to the soundtrack, studying the script and also consulting with the deaf community, with the goal of creating a translation in concert with the deaf community. “We each have people who are dear to us that we consult with and appreciate so much for their time and energy,” McIver said.

Andrew remembers a time she was preparing to interpret for a performance of “Les Misérables” and was struggling with how to convey the love and prayer of a father for a son for the song “Bring Him Home.”

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