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Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
Katie Hyatt plays Emma Flynn, left, Jake Earnest plays Jonas Tucker, Katie Jarvis plays Nell Hicks, Ben Featherstone plays Tuc, Brittni Henretty plays Dr. Alexis Graham and Abbie Craig plays Maizie in "The Taste of Sunrise."

PROVO — The cast of “The Taste of Sunrise” at Brigham Young University describes the play as moving, universal, complex and full of hope.

And while the depth of the play lies in its story, “The Taste of Sunrise” breaks cultural and language barriers as it follows Tuc, a deaf young man growing up in the 1920s, who tells his tale through American Sign Language.

“I understood that one way or another, every line in the play needed to be signed,” said director Julia Ashworth. “We weren’t necessarily planning on shadow signers from the very beginning; it was a development that happened. I thought it was about time we did something like this at BYU, where there was equal access in terms of deaf and hearing communities.”

The shadow signing featured in “The Taste of Sunrise” means that there are two actors for each part — one that speaks vocally and one that signs.

“You really do get double the energy and double the emotions because you do have two people for each character,” said stage manager Heather Richardson. “Even if you don’t understand (sign language), it adds so much visually, emotionally. It’s very powerful.”

Ashworth said her research has led her to believe “The Taste of Sunrise” is also likely the first ever shadow signing production at BYU.

“All art is engaging and challenging, but I am really invested with exploring my level of responsibility as a community member and citizen through art,” she said. “This is the kind of stuff that I’m drawn to. It has the potential to engage community in a unique way but also in a meaningful way.”

For “The Taste of Sunrise,” Ashworth cast actors from the hearing and the deaf communities. Actors were not required to have ASL experience but many did. Ben Featherstone, who is deaf, plays the lead role of Tuc.

“Many months ago, I had an interpreter at BYU. She texted me and told me that there would be a deaf play in six months. Later, I saw a sign that advertised it again, and I just kept thinking, ‘Should I do it? I don’t know,'” Featherstone recalled. “At the same time, I had a really great offer to become a certified deaf interpreter. So I auditioned, but the whole time I was thinking about backing out. But then they told me, ‘You are Tuc. You are the character in the show. We need you in it.’ And so I went home, prayed about it, felt right … and I became Tuc.”

Featherstone’s only previous acting experience was in junior high school. Laughing, he described his acting success as “zero to hero.”

But Ashworth was sure of Featherstone’s acting skills from the start.

“After (Featherstone) read the script, he emailed me back very quickly and said, ‘Yeah, I really want to do this. I understand this guy. I connect to this story,’” she said. “From that moment, I thought, ‘There’s really something here, I think this guy would be perfect for the part.’”

Abbie Craig, who plays Maizie in the production, knew the project was special just from the audition process.

“I got a callback and was really thrilled. Afterward, I told my parents that even if I don’t get into this play, that experience was so amazing, to be with people that are so supportive and building each other up,” she said. “Ben would teach me the signs for this part and for the auditions. I loved every step of the way.”

Craig said many of the experiences throughout the play, such as the sign language, speech therapy and her character’s deaf parents, can raise awareness and help people get an inside look at deaf culture.

Featherstone agreed.

“It helps people understand the deaf community, but that’s not the only reason why you should come see the show,” Featherstone said. “You’ll understand what it’s like to have hope in dark times. There’s a lot of really sad moments, but you’ll see Tuc learn how to love all the people around him. He goes out of his way to find light and see things as they really are.”

The show’s unique structure and story have already garnered success. Tickets for the 13 performances are going fast.

“I think one of the most interesting things about making art is taking creative risks, so for me this was a huge creative risk. It’s been very challenging but far more rewarding than anything else,” Ashworth said. “(The audience) will find many places and multiple characters that they can relate to and be moved by. It can change their perspective on deaf culture and their actions and engagement with the deaf community. It’s an eye-opening and moving experience.”

If you go ...

What: "The Taste of Sunrise"

When: March 10-12, 16-19 and 22-25, 7:30 p.m.; and March 19 and 26, 2 p.m.

Where: Margetts Theatre, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU, Provo

How much: $14 for general; $12 for alumni and seniors; $9 for students; $8 per person for groups of 10 or more

Phone: 801-422-2981

Web: arts.byu.edu

Email: scobb@deseretnews.com