Deaf West dives into David Mamet's fighting words in 'American Buffalo'

Deaf West Theatre-Cal State L.A. staging of 'American Buffalo' takes Mamet's colorful cursing to another level

To say the word "coin" in American Sign Language, you join the tip of your index finger to your thumb to create a circle, like making the "OK" sign, and then place the palm of your other hand beneath it. But if you remove your palm from beneath the circle, the word "coin" becomes a seven-letter expletive.

The difference is an important one for the cast of a new revival of "American Buffalo," David Mamet's profanity-filled drama in which a valuable nickel coin serves as the catalyst for the action.


Deaf West Theatre: A Feb. 22 article about American Sign Language used in a production of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" reversed the descriptions for "coin" and a profanity. "Coin" is signed by touching the tip of the index finger to the thumb to create a circle and placing the palm of the other hand beneath it. Without the last step, the sign indicates a profanity. —

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In this production from Deaf West Theatre and Cal State L.A., the actors perform Mamet's idiosyncratic dialogue — with its staccato rhythms and meaningful pauses — in Deaf West's signature mix of spoken English and ASL. The challenge is compounded by the simultaneous spoken translation that hearing audiences can experience via wireless headsets provided in the theater.

"It's madness. But we're going to try and pull it off," said Stephen Rothman, the director of the production, during a recent rehearsal. "I'm using sign language as a form of physicality. They are literally fighting with their words."

"American Buffalo," which opens Feb. 21, is the first Mamet play that Deaf West has undertaken. The 1975 drama, set in a Chicago junk shop overflowing with knickknacks and refuse, was Mamet's first big hit, establishing his now-familiar universe of obnoxious male characters and aggressively obscene patter.

For the production's staff, "Mamet speak" has been a special kind of hurdle. "It's a team effort, that's for sure," said DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West and one of the play's ASL Masters — experts who work with the cast and director to find equivalencies between written words and sign language.

In "American Buffalo," some characters sign faster than others, and the key is to "still make it all clear," he said, speaking through an interpreter. When two hearing characters are speaking, there will be supertitles on the stage. When characters sign to each other, the headsets will provide spoken translation.

For the cast, cursing in ASL is an integral part of the production — one that requires a certain level of sophistication and interpretive flair.

One of the more colorful words is the four-letter vulgarity for the female genitalia, which in sign language is expressed by pointing both hands downward while joining the tips of your fingers together into the shape of a vagina.

In an early exchange, the character of Teach (Deaf West veteran Troy Kotsur) uses the word in a baroquely twisted rant about his acquaintance Ruthie, an off-stage character. To express the trash talk coming from Ruthie, Kotsur creates a visual pun that merges the vagina-like sign with the spew coming out of Ruthie's mouth.

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To give the play a '70s feel, the production is using certain signs that have become obsolete or passé.

When Teach utters the expletive for the feces of a bull, "I chose an archaic way of signing it," the actor explained through an interpreter. The sign involves cupping your fist and turning it in a rotating motion on the tip of your nose.

Other vulgarities required improvisation: Because there is no sign for "broad," when used as a pejorative term for a woman, the actors mime being a woman holding her own breasts.

The expletives for fornication in all of their variations — verb, interjection, gerund — are expressed through various arrangements of the middle fingers as well as merging the middle finger with other signs. "It's all about context," said Paul Raci, who plays junk shop owner Donny Dubrow.

Raci is a hearing actor who was born to deaf parents, and in the play he shifts between spoken English and sign language. A Chicago native who grew up in a rough part of town, the actor said that he is drawing on the rough talk he received from his deaf father as inspiration for the performance.

The third cast member is Matthew Ryan Pest in the role of Bobby, a young hanger-on. The hearing actor knew no sign language before agreeing to take the role last year and took a crash course in signing.

"American Buffalo" remains one of Mamet's most-performed works. The Geffen Playhouse mounted a well-received revival production in 2013. This spring, there will be a major revival in London starring Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge.

Deaf West said it received permission to mount its revival through Mamet and his representatives. The L.A. theater company has produced family friendly musicals such as "Big River" and "Pippin." But it has also staged darker fare, like its 2002 production of Sam Shepard's "True West."

The company's recent staging of the musical "Spring Awakening" will be re-mounted at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts starting in May.

The challenge of performing Mamet in ASL and spoken English has clearly been felt by the cast. The opening night of "American Buffalo" was delayed by several days to allow more rehearsal time.

"We have to get used to each others' signing," said Kotsur, the actor who plays Teach. "It's like accents. Everyone signs differently."

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