Arlington’s Signature Theatre stages world premiere of ‘Private Jones’ about deaf sniper during World War I

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Private Jones' at Signature Theatre (Part 1)
"Private Jones" is running at Signature Theatre through March 10. (Courtesy Signature Theatre)

Imagine fighting in the trenches of war without being able to hear the gunfire and explosions happening all around you.

That’s the case with the deaf World War I sniper at the center of “Private Jones.” The new musical made its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Virginia, this week and is running now through March 10.

“We’re a company of hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing creatives, actors and designers who have come together to tell this story of a deaf Welsh sniper in World War I, mostly from his perspective,” Writer/Director Marshall Pailet told WTOP. “We use a number of languages to tell our story: spoken language, American Sign Language, British Sign Language and a range of theatrical devices like this live, on-stage, actor-driven sound foley to tell our story.”

The protagonist is Gomer Jones, who loses his hearing and is left behind when the rest of the young men enlist. He eventually fakes his way into a battalion alongside a group of colorful misfits who call themselves the “bastards,” becoming a celebrated sniper. Will getting everything that he ever wanted mean losing himself in the process?

“This show was inspired by a couple of sentences I found in an article; I stumbled upon this story of this guy named Gomer Jones,” Pailet said. “He speaks and he reads lips, so that allows him to fake his way past enlistment and into this horrible war made all the more horrible because he can’t hear the bullets and he can’t hear the explosions. Ultimately we’re interested in exploring how we value each other, how we do and don’t empathize with people.”

Gomer is portrayed by actor Johnny Link of Netflix’s coming-of-age series “My Life with the Walter Boys.”

“He’s an amazing actor,” Pailet said. “He is just an incredible musical theater performer and film performer who is hard of hearing, so when he’s performing he has an earpiece in where we’re piping the sound directly into his ear so that it goes over his hearing aids. He’s an incredible talent. He’s amazing in the show. … A little more than half of our actors are from the D.C. area, some others are from New York, but they’re incredible performers.”

Pailet works with Director of Artistic Sign Language Alexandria Wailes, Choreographer Misha Shields, Music Director Myra Conn as well as Scenic Designers Christopher and Justin Swader to create an innovative soundscape. Every performance is open captioned, while select performances feature an ASL interpreter signing throughout.

“It’s putting the audience in Gomer’s shoes and having them navigate this experience with him,” Pailet said. “There’s moments where you hear absolutely nothing, or there’s moments where you just hear tinnitus, there’s moments where there’s a combat scene in Act 2 where there’s a spotlight showing what Gomer is seeing within this crowded, messy combat scene, so the audience is only perceiving not the sounds of war but just what he is looking at very specifically. We’re doing stuff on stage that I haven’t seen before.”

It resonates in the D.C. region with members of the Deaf community attending classes at Gallaudet University in D.C. and at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland.

“The community is huge here,” Pailet said. “There’s a hunger for more representation. You want the people you see on stage to reflect the population that you live in. It’s not just in D.C., it’s all over the country, you’re seeing more deaf and hard-of-hearing representation on stage, TV and film. I think it’s important, I think it’s cool, I’m happy to be a part of it and I hope it inspires other artists to write more characters who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Private Jones' at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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