It hits you before the play even begins. Pulsing club music thrums from the stage as Gaia ‘G33’ Ahuja produces beats for actors and dancers Chris Fonseca and Raphaella ‘Raffie’ Julien to warm up to. It’s hard to explain and it sounds contradictory, but there’s a directness to Follow The Signs which succeeds at being both challenging and comforting.
Fonseca, the writer and our protagonist, immediately smashes through the fourth wall to speak to us as the audience, and to share his life story. Some of us will already be familiar with Fonseca as a result of his appearance on the BBC talent show The Greatest Dancer in 2019, but even if we aren’t, the play does the job of explaining his life story – from becoming Deaf after contracting meningitis at almost two years old, to the impact audism (the discrimination against Deaf people) and racism has had on his upbringing.
It’s led to Fonseca creating his own safe space, established on the Soho Theatre stage, in which to exist. Here, sound is whatever he wants it to be, and the power of that is immense. Moments of silence linger. The ‘Deaf card’ and the privileges it can bring is explored in a hilarious, hyperbolic anecdote about a ticket inspector, as well as the ability to ‘turn off’ screaming babies, thunder and noisy children on buses. Other comedic moments see oralism and a speech therapist (Ahuja) donning a clown wig as she encourages Fonseca to say his name. It’s jarring, but that’s rather the point.
Chris is drawn more to dance, which almost reads like a way for Fonseca to process the hearing world around him, “spinning on its axis”. Being placed under anaesthesia for his cochlear implant operation leads to a smooth, flowing and dreamy dance sequence, before the switching on of the device – rather refreshingly, in contrast to what most viral videos would have you believe – and the rush of static produces a more chaotic, intense and visceral routine. Fonseca’s manipulation of music is masterful.
Narratively and lyrically, it is equally impressive. A British Sign Language (BSL) fingerspelling lesson is informative viewing for the hearing audience member, but for Deaf viewers like myself, what follows is far more interesting. An astonishing linguistic feat in which the alphabet becomes the basis for an alliterative acrostic. Fonseca – at this point in his life story, only just getting familiar with BSL as a language – uses each letter to offload his frustration and shame around his Deaf identity in a way which 26 characters doesn’t do justice. Very early on in Follow the Signs we learn how a hat would conceal his cochlear implant so as to avoid attention and judgement. In the corner of the stage, co-writer, director and Chris’ voiceover Harry Jardine conveys the vernacular of his signing in this scene – and indeed, throughout the production – with phenomenal flow.
For a gig theatre production which touches on Blackness and racism (a flashing fight sequence between Chris and a racist bully is thrillingly cinematic, by the way), having a white man voice Fonseca is somewhat troubling to begin with, before it is acknowledged by the dancer himself in one of the play’s more potent moments. Building upon the ease of the audience so quickly established prior to the show, he is now more pressing in his education, calling on white Deaf and hearing audience members to acknowledge his dual identity as a Black Deaf man.
It’s emphasised further by co-star Raffie, a “half Black, half white” woman who is told she is not “Deaf enough”, while at the same time, finds herself stuck when “Black Deaf only” Facebook groups appear online. There’s a fight to be seen, fully and completely, at the heart of Follow the Signs, and it’s hard-hitting.
Equally, it’s about a journey for Fonseca to see and accept himself. Raffie’s character helps with that, but in a short hour running time, the friendship feels in need of further development, in addition to its conclusion. For all the time spent on Fonseca’s struggle to accept his Deaf identity, the focus on this narrative’s climax is abrupt and unbalanced.
Though in its current form, Follow the Signs is an ambitious attempt from Fonseca to bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing community – to start a conversation – and for that, I take my hat off to him.
Follow the Signs is now playing at the Soho Theatre until 27 August.
Production Images: Phoebe Capewell.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Follow the Signs’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. While I know Chris Fonseca in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own, and I did not receive payment for this article.