WHAT is the first impression that somebody gets upon learning that there is ‘deaf theatre’ in Namibia?

Sandy Ruud an artistic director at Bank Windhoek Theatre School and a senior lecturer at the College of the Arts in Windhoek is the director of Namibia Deaf Theatre Company.

In 2002 Sandy, as she is affectionately known as, teamed up with Lizette Beukes of the Khomasdal Deaf School, produced the play The Deaf Tortoise Us, the first deaf play in Namibia.

“l was very nervous and scared of working with the deaf people at first, l remember sitting in my car in the parking area contemplating whether to go ahead with the project or not. It was fear of the unknown. Later, l realised there is no difference working with these people. The deaf have their own language just like the Damaras, Oshiwambo, Herero and Silozi,” says Sandy.

Since its 2002 debut, deaf theatre has won a huge fan base with plays such as Bring on the Clowns, Look at Me and Happy Beat which premiers this July.

The plays have collaborated deaf people with a passion for theatre and some Namibian professional actors such as Ndemufayo ‘Chicken’ Kaxuxuena, Sevelia ‘Pinky’ Nanghama and Huberth ‘Boetietjie’ Kavandje.

In these plays, the deaf play-act according to their script, while the trio of Kaxuxuena, Nanghama and Kavandje do voice narrations.

Says Kavandje, “My first encounter with deaf theatre on stage came at a time when l had a deaf uncle whom l had problems communicating with at home, so you can imagine the apprehension I had at first to work with ten deaf people for that matter.

“Soon, I realised that the deaf are committed people with a special work ethic. I was very intrigued by their ability to acknowledge fault. When they don’t understand something they ask until they get clarity yet us who are not deaf always go ahead following instructions pretending to have understood the message only to do the wrong thing all together.”

It took ‘Chicken’ Kaxuxuena ten days to translate and write, two weeks to practise the script and a week to perfect the Bring on the Clowns act, the first ever deaf stand up comedy which was developed by deaf actors Sampson Ndaikaile and Sabina Hermenteiro Joao.

Sabina says of Bring the Clowns, “The response from the public makes me feel appreciated for my hard work and effort. It makes me feel good,” he says in sign language with the assistance of Chicken’s interpretation.

And Sabina, with Chicken’s assistance, can crack a joke in sign language which can leave even a mourner in stitches.

All the show director, Sandy, does is to bring up a topic and the deaf actors write the script and how they want it done.

She says the response from the community has been very supportive and positive as people take deaf theatre serious and with amazement.

So far, public shows at Okahandja and Windhoek in the Court-yard Theatre at the College of the Arts have been held.

“Most people are not exposed to people with handicap because we are fearful and we only fear what we don’t know. The more we meet and interact with them, the less fearful we become. I think that is the reason Namibia is waking up to deaf theatre,” she says, adding that in some cases the audience even suspect the deaf actors to be ‘playing deaf’.

The Deaf Theatre Company has staged shows such as Look at Me which was an exhibition sponsored by the British Council at the University of Namibia and the literacy awareness campaign at the UN Plaza in Katutura.

This year’s play Happy Beat is a story about a deaf boy who had a passion for playing the drum despite having hearing impairment. All he wanted to do was to play the drum. He is thrown out of the village by his father only to return to save the village and become an instant hero, narrates Sandy Ruud.

This play will take approximately four-five months to produce. Sandy is looking for donors, well wishers and sponsorship in order to make this and many other deaf shows a success.

Sandy has been involved in performing arts and theatre for over five decades across Africa and is optimistic about deaf theatre’s impact in Namibia. She hopes her shows will help create deaf awareness and remove the stigma associated with any form of the handicap.

She still has memories of her first stage performance as a three-year old and then as a five year old at the Miss Catherine’s Dance School Show in Lusaka, Zambia where she played the role of a bee.

Born in 1955, Sandy recently received the National Theatre of Namibia and Namibian Film Association’s Life Time Achievement Award 2010.

“I have been lucky that fate gave impetus to what l am today as it keeps directing me towards theatre. Over the years, i have tried so many jobs such as nursing, secretarial work and many others, but l was either fired or resigned because l couldn’t do anything besides theatre,” she says.

In 1983 Sandy as she is affectionately known, joined the Playmakers in Namibia, an amateur theatre group, where she directed her first Namibian play ‘There Was an Old Woman.’

“Being born in Zimbabwe and having stayed in Zambia, it was very tricky working with Afrikaner speaking people for the completion of the play. It needed a lot of murmuring and role playing and that’s how l managed to overcome the language barrier,” she recalls.

At that time the colonial government was not really supportive of theatre in Namibia, so Sandy had to fundraise and it was those challenges that kept her going.

There Was an Old Woman was the first ever musical amature play to have a mixed cast where white and black children were acting together in Namibia.

She draws satisfaction from the fact that she was “working with people with no experience in theatre”.

Sandy describes herself as a lucky person who has been fortunate to work with different people in her career which spans over 50 years in performance theatre.

“l have never met a person who doesn’t remember being in a play at one stage in their lives. People can forget a great sport even, a lover, illness but not being in a theatre play,” she concludes. PF