September 19, 2020

‘Baby Driver’ star shakes up Deaf Culture Night

By Gianna Melillo

Few students clapped for deaf actor and comedian CJ Jones during his performance in the Decker Social Space — instead they shook two hands in the air, the sign language equivalent for a round of applause.

Jones came the College as the featured performer for Deaf Culture Night, a night filled with free comedy, pizza and a photo booth on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

The College’s Deaf-Hearing Connection hosted the event to raise awareness for the language and culture of the deaf community. The event featured Jones, who recently performed in the summer blockbuster, “Baby Driver.”

Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf located in Ewing, also came to campus for the event.

Fabriana Andriella, a junior deaf education and psychology double major and president of Deaf-Hearing Connection, hoped the event would raise awareness for the deaf community.

“In the spring, we always do Deaf Awareness Day (now called Deaf Celebration Day),” she said. “We thought it would be nice to do something smaller in the fall to allow people to be exposed to our club and deaf culture.”

Jones kicked off the event by signing life stories out for the audience and cracking jokes about his experiences.

The comedian, who hails from St. Louis, was born to two deaf parents. At a young age, he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis — a near-death experience that left him completely deaf.

Jones interacted directly through signing to deaf students from Katzenbach and ASL students from the College. There was also a live interpreter for those that didn’t know how to interpret sign language.

Jones later called an audience member onto the stage and asked him his name. When it was clear the audience member did not know sign language, Jones leaned in, cupped a hand around his ear and asked him to repeat his name.

Students in the crowd responded with laughter and both hands shaking in the air, which happened a lot during Jones’ performance.

The comedian then momentarily transformed his personal experiences into a motivational speech.

Jones faces challenges as a deaf actor and comedian. (Meagan McDowell / Photo Assistant)

Jones opened up to the audience about the first time he scored a touchdown as quarterback for his high school football team.

“I carry that moment with me each day. I want to share that with you tonight,” Jones said.

Students raised their hands in applause. It was an important moment for Jones, remembering that although being deaf has its challenges, it also encourages those to take chances.

“Stop being afraid and stop doubting yourself,” Jones said. “Whatever is in your heart gives you the power to succeed.”

Jones then demonstrated the differences between American Sign Language and Japanese Sign Language. At one point, he taught the audience how to say “thank you” in Japanese Sign Language and discussed instances of communicating with foreigners who don’t sign.  

It was not easy to pursue a career as a deaf black actor and comedian, but having patience was key to his success, according to Jones.

“There aren’t many TV roles available in the past for people like me,” Jones said. “Now, we’re seeing an explosion of very diverse people coming out and breaking through.”

To conclude the night, Jones left the audience with three important things to remember.

“I appreciate you, I thank you and I love you,” Jones signed to the crowd.

Jones then had the audience members turn to one another and try to sign that same message.

Cassie Sokoloff, a freshman public health major, found the event an overall positive experience.

“It was very funny and a lot more positive than I expected. I feel a lot better in my life right now,” Sokoloff said.

It was clear Sokoloff’s sentiment was shared throughout the room as the audience filtered out, signing and smiling to one another.  

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