The special Tony Award that honors educators will go this year to a drama teacher in Florida who has closed the gap between the deaf and hearing worlds by having productions performed in both voice and American Sign Language.
Jason Zembuch-Young, artistic director of the public South Plantation High School, in Plantation, Florida, is being honored for “empowering every student to make and be part of theater.”
“I didn’t start out with a mission of let’s be as inclusive as we possibly can. I’ve always championed the underdog because I kind of relate to that,” he told The Associated Press ahead of the formal Wednesday announcement. “What made sense to me was if there’s somebody that’s standing in front of you and they want to work, well, let’s put them to work and let’s figure out a way to have them be as successful as they possibly can.”
Zembuch-Young runs a theater department with more than 150 students participating, which includes putting on both a full-length musical and a play each year and asking his team to be conversant in ASL. He also operates a six-week summer-stock theater camp for elementary and middle school students, using high school drama students as counselors and mentors.
Zembuch-Young doesn’t just have a signing interpreter perched on the side of the stage — he incorporates deaf culture into the theater piece so his team is “actually doing theater for the deaf rather than simply making theater accessible to the deaf.” He also includes blind students as well as those on the autism spectrum.
“I think that more young deaf people that see deaf actors know that they can actually be deaf actors,” says Zembuch-Young. “More kids that come to a production that are blind and they hear about the fact that somebody on the stage is as blind as they are, it makes it attainable.”
Zembuch-Young was named winner of the Barnes & Noble 2020 Teacher of the Year award and earned an honorable mention for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award at the 2019 Tony Awards.
He is quick to note that he’s not the first to explore theater for the deaf, citing the work of Deaf West Theatre in California and Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. “There are tons of organizations out there that do it and do it right as well,” he says.
He has been at South Plantation High School since 2004. One of the first accessible productions he directed was “Peter Pan,” with a young deaf student playing Tinkerbell. By her senior year, she was Maria in “West Side Story” and had undergone a profound change.
She had once been embarrassed to be seen signing, but by her last year, she was proud of her heritage, her culture and her language. “She found a place in the theater in which people weren’t staring at her. They were watching her in awe,” Zembuch-Young says.
The annual education award bestowed by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University recognizes U.S. educators from kindergarten to 12th grade who have “demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession.”
A panel of judges comprised of the American Theatre Wing, The Broadway League, Carnegie Mellon and other leaders from the theater industry selects the winner, based on candidates submitted by the public.
“Jason’s exceptional commitment to empowering every student to make and be part of theater has won the hearts and appreciation of his local community and now the Broadway community, as well,” Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, and Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, said in a statement.
Zembuch-Young’s commitment to youth doesn’t end at the stage door. He and his husband, Michael, have fostered more than 35 abused and underprivileged children. He offers free admission to all performances for foster families so that they can experience live theater.
“When kids are acting like kids, they have an excuse: They’re kids,” he says. “Most of the time what they need is exactly what I needed when I was their age and didn’t have, which is somebody to see them for who they are, as opposed to what they are acting like.”