By Sagirah Shahid
Maya Washington shapes her hand into the American Sign Language word for “yes” to indicate the audio on her end of the Facebook Video application is working just fine.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and Washington is in Los Angeles working on her latest film project and has agreed to speak with us remotely. The only problem is the video application is misbehaving.
Initially, we can’t hear a word she says.
Those brief moments of tech-induced silence feel oddly appropriate; Washington has spent the better part of her career generating and curating art that seeks to improve the alliance of the hearing creative community with the deaf creative community.
For the most part, the multitalented actress/director/playwright/poet/producer has been successful in utilizing her eclectic skillset to facilitate these sorts of conversations. Most notably, an award-winning short film she wrote and directed.
“White Space,” is a film that follows the journey of a deaf spoken word artist who performs an impassioned poem to a hearing audience entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). Washington said the film created an opportunity for the deaf and the hearing to work together in a creative space. She’s also quick to point out that her role as an ally isn’t to come in and tell the community what it needs. Her role is to listen and to be intentional about being inclusive.
“There isn’t a whole lot of effort to reach out to voices from the disability community. We hear about diversity quite a bit as a buzzword, but rarely is that conversation including the disability community,” said Washington.
Washington’s first experience with deafness in a creative space was as a teenager. Growing up, her family was one of the only Black families in her Twin Cities suburban neighborhood.
Oftentimes, said Washington, this experience made her feel “othered.” Even though she pursued and excelled at dance and theater at a young age, it wasn’t until she started taking college courses through the Post-Secondary Educational Option, that she felt truly at home in her art.
“My junior year of high school I started taking courses at the University of Minnesota and was consciously choosing things like African-American theater and women’s (literature),” said Washington. “There was no way I would be able to take these courses at my suburban high school.”
It was at the university, during a modern dance class, where Washington met a deaf young woman in the class who would eventually became her friend. The friendship left a lasting impact on young Washington.
Now, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s undergraduate acting program and with a Master’s of Fine Arts in poetry from Hamline University, the adult Washington brings a certain level of intersectional intentionality in all the work she does.
Recently, she organized a “Black Poets Speak Out” event at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul. The event was a response to the recent deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two African-American men killed by police. At the event, Washington made sure ASL interpreters were center stage.
The event was painfully reminiscent of an earlier “Black Poets Speak Out.”
In January of 2015 Washington helped organize the Twin Cities’ first “Black Poets Speak Out” at Penumbra, which was in response to Mike Brown’s murder.
“We were able to speak on how police violence has impacted our communities; how it has impacted the deaf community. It was truly an act of solidarity,” said Washington. “But here we are a year and a half later and it’s in our backyard.”
Her voice cracked a little as she noted that Castile worked a few blocks from Penumbra’s location.
The lines between art, history and inclusion blur when it comes to Washington. She’s currently working on a documentary about her father, former NFL player Gene Washington. He was one of a few African-American players who played a critical role in helping to integrate the sport at the college level. The film, “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar” includes a clip of her first “Black Poets Speak Out” event. Her father is in attendance and there are ASL interpreters. Washington reflects on theses parallels.
“I’m writing for the little girl 50 years into the future … people who will have their own set of challenges, who are going to need to look back and say ‘wow, this is what happened then. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.’”
“Through the Banks of the Red Cedar” is set to release in 2017.