The instant Sam Hemphill walked onto the stage in the Buffalo State College production of "Antigone," a hush swept over the audience of jittery college students.
Hemphill, a junior acting major at Buffalo State, soon launched into the Greek tragedy's pivotal speech, a forceful condemnation of the tyrannical ruler Creon. In the role of the blind prophet Teiresias, Hemphill foretells a future so bleak, in terms so damning, that the earth rumbles under his feet and Creon himself quakes with fear.
This 12-minute appearance is by far the most important in Sophocles' masterwork, and demands an actor with an impeccable delivery, a deep understanding of his role, and, above all, a confident and commanding voice.
And in his first public performance on any stage, Hemphill tackled all those feats without uttering a single word. This deaf actor performed the role of Teiresias by creating his own personal brand of sign language. A fellow student actor, Buffalo State freshman Andrew Lee, played Teiresias' guide in the play and served as his interpreter in the show.
"He has to look at Creon, but he's a blind character, so he has to look by not looking, hear by not hearing, and make it seem as though he hears what he's saying," said Buffalo State associate professor Drew Kahn, who teaches Hemphill's acting classes and directed him in "Antigone." "He's doing an amazing amount of fast processing."
As the only deaf acting major in Buffalo State's theater program, Hemphill will always stand in a class by himself. But he's also part of a welcoming family.
"Sam is working on his voice, just like the 74 other majors here," said Kahn. "There's a lot of things that are interesting to me about how Sam sees the world that we don't. He has a perspective that we don't. We learn a lot from Sam, as he learns from us, and that perspective, that otherworldliness, is exactly what Teiresias experiences."
Before a rehearsal of the show in October, Kahn whispered excitedly about Hemphill's participation in the show as the students ran their lines onstage. "I've got a deaf actor playing a blind prophet," Kahn said with a sly smirk, delighted at the challenge of working with a deaf actor for the first time in his 14-year teaching career.
Last fall, Hemphill transferred from the Rochester Institute of Technology -- a school with a sizable and active deaf community -- to Buffalo State, a school with no deaf community to speak of. It's a move that he said confused his parents, who were concerned he'd be a fish out of water at a school like Buffalo State. But after watching a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" with a cast of deaf actors at RIT, Hemphill instantly recognized his calling and was determined to enroll in Buffalo State's well-respected theater program.
"I was stunned by the performance," Hemphill said through an interpreter. "I felt a connection. It was fascinating that deaf people were onstage and it didn't matter -- deaf or hearing people -- anyone could act. I felt that connection and I feel like I wanted to do that myself."
Flash forward to Nov. 8, the premiere of "Antigone" and Hemphill's first moment in the spotlight.
"To learn from a man such as me who knows what is right is not a painful thing," Hemphill's Teiresias says through sweeping gestures, "especially if what he says will do you good."
Later, he continues, "I am an archer. The arrow of my tongue shoots straight into the heart."
Those lines make it pretty clear why Kahn chose "Antigone" as Hemphill's first play.
But this begs the question: how do you find the truth of your voice when you haven't got one -- at least not in the traditional sense?
For actors, as for most everyone else, the human voice is an indispensable tool. It's the nexus of their identity, the way a person defines himself and interacts with the world. Without one, it's easy to feel lost, scared or -- like plenty of college students -- unsure of who you are.
For Hemphill, however, eliminating fear and ignorance among his peers about the limitations of his deafness is the first step to forging an already promising identity.
"If you think that deaf people can't do things, as Drew said, that expresses a fear," Hemphill said. "Deaf people can do anything."
Case in point: In an effort to reach out to his fellow students leading up to the premiere of "Antigone," Hemphill created a two-week series of workshops called "The No Voice Zone," in which he invited fellow actors to work together without using their vocal chords.
"I've been trying to help people step outside the box -- and not the box as we usually think of it, but your own individual box," Hemphill said. "Step outside that box and you can develop relationships outside of your own personal experiences and limitations."
For Julian Perez, a Buffalo State senior who first met Hemphill in stage combat class, participating in "The No Voice Zone" was a learning experience in the truest sense. "It's so wonderful. There's no sound whatsoever; we're not allowed to use our vocal chords for anything, and that brings a whole new dimension to the way we perform, and the way he performs as well."
"In the future this sort of comfort with deaf actors will help them," Hemphill said. "I anticipate there'll be more deaf actors that they'll run across and need to work with and they'll be comfortable working with deaf actors."
Now, in the role of Creon, Perez is comfortable enough to spar with Hemphill onstage -- something acting students have been reticent to do.
"They always tend to be really nice in their scenes to him, their characters. Because he's Sam and they're so proud of him," Kahn said. "And then we say, you know what? You guys can go hug each other afterward, but right now you're not happy with him, so let him have it."
Now, Hemphill is in Kahn's Acting II class, in which he must perform scenes from playwrights like David Mamet and Tennessee Williams. It's his biggest challenge yet, Hemphill said.
"During a scene, we have no interpretation, so I need to do a very sentimental scene where I need to really show how I feel about another character, and I have to show that relationship. I find that a huge challenge."
In the spring of 2008, Hemphill will be cast in another play at the school -- this time likely with an even bigger part.
And through that whole process, Hemphill said, he'll keep one thing in mind.
"It's critical for us as actors, wherever we act, it's important to look beyond whatever barriers you think you have and just be who you are," Hemphill said.
Said Kahn in response: "I couldn't have said it better myself."