Jane Levy plays the title role of Zoey in NBC’s newest show “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” Zoey has the ability to hear the innermost thoughts of people around her as songs and musical numbers. The episode, appropriately titled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence”, featured a storyline with a deaf character and a musical number with deaf performers using American Sign Language (ASL!)
At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to Abigail, played by deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank. Abigail is the daughter of Zoey’s dad’s caretaker, Howie. After learning that Abigail and Howie have not spoken in a while, so Zoey accompanies Howie to visit his daughter in college.
Abigail lives in the deaf dorm and is excited to tell her dad about her latest goals. She explains her desire to go to Kenya to introduce coding to kids by offering programs in English and ASL. Howie immediately shuts her idea down. We are led into a lyric-less musical number in ASL set to the pop tune “Fight Song,” by Rachel Platten.
According to Deadline, the show’s creator, Austin Winsberg, was adamant about the number being performed without singing and without subtitles. The show choreographer, Mandy Moore (Dancing with the Stars) partnered with the Deaf West Theatre Company to produce the number using all deaf cast members.
Moore spent a couple of days with Deaf West Artistic Director, David Kurs, and three of the deaf performers to have an ASL workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to decide how to meld together ASL and dance.
“I realized very quickly that I was going to need to do some preproduction on my end, not only to make the routine but also just to learn ASL because people think that dance and ASL go very beautifully together,” Moore told Deadline.
Moore quickly learned that creating the choreography for the dance would be more challenging than she thought. She acknowledges that part of the difficulty was in making a clear translation of “Fight Song” into ASL. But also learning there really was about a hundred different ways it could be translated.
“Holy smokes, everything I thought I knew I threw out as soon as I got in the room which was really beautiful, fun and scary, but very cool,” Moore explained more about the choreography process. “And we worked for about three hours I think in that initial preproduction rehearsal, and it was trying not only to understand what signs we were going to do for what words, but also adding a bit of movement to it.
While working with deaf performers and learning more about ASL, Moore realized the importance of including dance moves that don’t take away from the “beauty and clarity” of ASL.
Although the number and process of creating the performance is fascinating, the root of Abigail’s story is most captivating.
Later in the episode, Abigail opens up to Zoey about her journey with hearing loss. She says her dad felt defeated and upset when hearing devices didn’t help her hear. Due to this, he kept her a bit sheltered. Going to college and meeting other deaf people made her realize the opportunities she has and the dreams she needs to pursue without hesitation or limitations.
Abigail wants to go to Kenya so other deaf people know they can do anything they put their minds to. Ultimately, Zoey shares this with Howie, and Howie comes around to supporting his daughter’s desires.
Sandra Mae Frank is passionate about the deaf community and how ASL is portrayed on television, according to the Hollywood Reporter. This show’s episode showed the obstacles the deaf community faces and the tenacity that many have to overcome those challenges.
Recently in Hollywood, more deaf characters have been featured on popular shows. Shoshannah Stern recently played a deaf doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Stern’s character as a deaf doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy,” marks one of the only times a deaf doctor has been highlighted on primetime TV.
Seeing more deaf characters on TV shows is progress. It is a step toward the right direction when it comes to inclusivity in Hollywood.
Do you want to learn more? You can see a featurette about the making of the episode of “Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist” here.