Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, who conceived Look Through My Eyes, is the Assistant Director for Quest Visual Theatre, a group of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing performers/teaching artists and educators spanning the spectrum of color, culture and gender, but united in a commitment to theater from a visual base composed of casts and production staffs that are inclusive.
The show, Mervin said using American Sign Language (ASL) “was five years in the making.”
Mervin, 40, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, is a professional dancer. An October 2009 issue of Washingtonian magazine profiled him as one of eight local performers who were on the way up.
The scene in the upstairs lobby on Saturday night at Theatre Project would have delighted my uncle, Dr. Donald L. Ballantyne, Jr., the first deaf American to earn a doctorate degree, and who was involved in developing microsurgery techniques used in skin and organ transplants. Born in another era, he was an expert lip reader and fluent conversationalist. He learned ASL in his late 20s, but enjoyed traversing the worlds of the hearing and the deaf.
I walked up the tall flight of stairs with my friend and felt we’d stepped into a world that spoke a language unknown to us. People’s hands danced as they signed. Their eyes sparkled and their facial expressions were animated as they chatted with friends.
Mervin was born black, deaf, and gay. In my uncle’s time, that might have been three strikes.
But, Mervin is a fighter.
He was diagnosed with HIV 22 years ago, and has survived and thrived.
It takes a few minutes to realize Mervin is male. Even then, one oscillates between “Of course he’s a guy!” and “Meh. No, he’s not.”
His presentation to the world, on and off stage, is gender fluid – and carried off with élan.
He likes the best of both worlds with styled hair, dramatic makeup and false eyelashes paired with tailored jackets cut from boldly patterned fabrics, leotards and leggings.
The show’s announcer proclaimed the show was starting. But, nothing moved onstage. Suddenly, there was a polite commotion several rows behind us.
Mervin was moving through the filled rows of seats. He’d sit on the lap of one person (to their delight), or lie across the knees of several ticket holders – all the while signing, playing patty-cake with audience members, or sharing an ASL joke. He worked or played through several rows of thrilled patrons.
Then, he strode toward the back wall of the stage and was gone.
The set was deceptively simple.
Two wide swaths of elegantly simple cream-colored woven fabric were hung to form a giant, wide “X” as a backdrop. The fabric served as a screen for the multitude of computer-generated images projected onstage by Vina Vo.
The stage went dark.
Two women emerged from the darkness, one from either side of the draped fabric. Anastasia Tsyganok was ferociously strumming her guitar and Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan tapped loudly on the African skin-topped, wooden drum she carried. Anastasia sang throughout most of the performance, but the powerful, moody “songs” she composed with Eric Kennedy have no lyrics.
Mervin, dressed in a long sleeved cream turtleneck dance top and leggings, performed a powerful, emotional interpretive dance for the next hour. His only prop was a silvery blue satin blanket which serves as a cape, a flourish, an escape from the audience and life, and a safe place.
Under the direction of Michelle Banks, Vino Vo projected a variety of rainbow hued imagery on the screen – and on Mervin – during his dance. At times, it was a cloud of fluttering butterflies which appear to be two hearts joined as one. The imagery included off-focus, enlarged video images of Mervin, human hands, or a swarm of African masks.
The effect was enhanced by the lighting designed by Dan Schrader.
The hour long show was followed by a 30-minute talkback with the audience.
Emotionally moved and inspired several audience members noticed Mervin held his fist aloft several times.
It was for “Deaf Power,” he said. Of his performances, Mervin said, through an ASL interpreter, “I haven’t arrived yet. It’s more of an exploration.”
“Being deaf and black are both powerful in themselves,” he said. “You have to love who you are. You have to love yourself.”
Running Time: One hour, followed by a 30-minute audience Talkback session.
Look Through My Eyes played from March 10-13, 2016 at Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For information about upcoming productions at Theatre Project, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or visit their website.