Deaf artists hope ‘CODA’ isn’t an isolated success story

LOS ANGELES — It’s been heralded as a watershed moment for representation.

The film “CODA,” which is an acronym for children of deaf adults, depicts the dynamics of a family of four where only the daughter, Ruby, can hear. The rest of her family — and the actors who portray them — are all deaf.

What You Need To Know

  • CODA is an acronym for children of deaf adults
  • The film set a record at Sundance when it was acquired for $25 million
  • Troy Kotsur has won several awards for his work in “CODA” and recently became the first deaf male actor to win a BAFTA
  • “CODA” is nominated for three Academy Awards

DJ Kurs is the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre and father of three CODA children. It’s rare to see this kind of family relationship on-screen, he said, explaining that most of the time, when deaf people are depicted in film and TV, they are shown in isolation.

“It’s exciting to see the dynamics of a deaf family and how quickly that conversation happens,” he said, communicating in American Sign Language and being interpreted by Elizabeth Greene. “It’s very typical.”

Kurs loves how the film is starting a conversation, especially about deaf people and music. He points to the scene when Ruby’s family attends her school concert, a situation he’s been in many times with his own children.

“I still understand the room. I see the joy in the audience’s faces, and I’m a part of that, and it helps me to appreciate the music more,” he explained.

So when Deaf West was approached by Apple TV to produce a music video inspired by the film, Kurs jumped at the chance, seeing it as an exciting project and great opportunity.

“The idea of the music not being accessible to a deaf community, to show that that’s really a false idea, the deaf community has always loved music,” he said, adding that it’s important for the world to finally recognize that.

Kurs is also glad the world is recognizing the talent of Troy Kotsur, who has done dozens of shows with Deaf West. Kotsur has won several awards for his work in “CODA” and recently became the first deaf male actor to win a BAFTA.

“We’ve known all along he was good,” Kurs said.

The company clearly has an eye for talent. Daniel Durant, who plays Ruby’s brother in the film, started working with Deaf West a decade ago, appearing in a number of shows including the acclaimed production of “Spring Awakening” that transferred to Broadway.

But if there’s one concern about the film, it’s that it only shows one experience. Lavender-Cygnet de Julia is an ASL interpreter with Pro Bono ASL and a CODA as well. They work with specific subgroups within deaf culture — BIPOC, queer, trans — all of whom need to be able to communicate with the world in a safe and authentic manner. It’s something they noticed when their mother, a deaf Black woman, would hire a white interpreter.

“It just didn’t feel right,” de Julia said. “Her tone wasn’t coming off correctly, to me personally.”

De Julia’s mother, like her, was a social activist and an interpreter. She was also a poet who once appeared on stage with Maya Angelou.

“Having that opportunity to take a Black woman’s writing and translate it as a Black woman herself for the Black deaf community, I mean, that’s… that’s everything,” de Julia said.

While they felt “CODA” captured some very specific details of the deaf community, for them, it really highlighted the need to keep delving.

“And so my advice to Hollywood is, do better,” de Julia said. “Go out into those communities and give them the money to tell the stories that they have been trying to tell for a really, really long time.”

Kurs also hopes Hollywood doesn’t see the success of this film as a one-off.

“The lives of deaf people, the experiences and backgrounds of deaf people, the identities, the intersectionality of deaf people, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that,” he said.

Kurs feels there is a sea change happening, that minds and doors are finally opening. He admitted that in the past, the world may not have been 100% ready for deaf actors to enter the industry.

But now, Kurs said, “the world is more open, more aware, more understanding,” and he’s excited to see where it leads in all aspects of filmmaking. “It’s not only about Hollywood giving us opportunities. It’s also about them seeing how we can contribute to the industry at large.”

On screen, on stage, and behind the camera, it’s something Kurs said it’s long overdue.