Actor showcased deaf theatre
Bernard Bragg, an actor who broadened the boundaries of the stage by co-founding America’s National Theatre of the Deaf, a path-breaking company that provided a showcase for deaf performers such as himself and the elegant beauty of sign language, died Oct. 29. He was 90.
Bragg described himself as “practically born into the theatre.” His father, like his mother, was deaf and had started an amateur acting troupe for the hearing impaired. However great his love of the stage, the younger Bragg harboured little hope for a career in acting until 1956, when he attended a performance by Marcel Marceau, the world-renowned French mime, in San Francisco.
Bragg, then teaching at the California School for the Deaf, was entranced by the power of Marceau’s art. “After I saw Marceau’s performance, I said to myself, if he can do a two-hour show without saying a word, why can’t I?” Bragg once told a publication of Gallaudet University where he taught and performed from 1978 to 1995.
“Every actor who is deaf and who steps on a stage today or in front of a camera owes a debt of gratitude for the path he forged over 50 years ago,” the Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, wrote in an email.
In 1967, seeking to expand performing opportunities for the deaf, Bragg helped start the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut.
In short order, the company had attracted widespread attention with performances on Broadway and around the world. In 1977, it received a special Tony Award.
Bernard Nathan Bragg was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 27, 1928. Society at the time was largely unwelcoming to the deaf, often assumed to be intellectually disabled.
When he was growing up, “sign language was a no-no,” he recalled years later in an essay. “I was told to keep my hands at my sides; it was considered shameful, clownish, to be seen signing in public. Today, people pay to see my sign.”