For two nights a week since January, students from Rock Hill's high schools have been studying sign language.
The kids are not deaf, and they're not getting class credit for it - but they plan to use what they've learned to inspire and entertain others.
The students have come together to produce the schools' first all-district honors play, and their first production is "Children of a Lesser God" - the play (and movie) that has brought a lot of understanding of deaf culture to mainstream America. View video from Wednesday's rehearsal here.
Learning the language was a struggle at first, everyone admits, but the students have since gone far beyond the script. Stephanie Daniel, the drama teacher at Rock Hill High School, often sees the students signing to each other in the halls.
"They take what they've learned for the play and apply it to talking to each other," learning new signs for what they want to say, said Erin Shaw, who has been teaching the students. She teaches community sign language classes at The Body, a nondenominational church on Ebenezer Road.
Shaw, who is married to the school's orchestra director, will be signing the play's few unsigned scenes at the performances tonight and Friday night at Rock Hill High.
The cast members also have gone out into the deaf community to practice their new language. They started at a deaf bowling night organized through Central Piedmont Community College.
"It was intimidating at first," said Keanu Thompson, a junior at Northwestern High School who plays Sarah Norman, a young deaf woman who gets involved with a teacher at the deaf school where she works.
But things lightened up when the teens realized their deaf hosts were teasing them in sign language.
They attended a few CPCC-organized silent dinners and soon were laughing, joking and carrying on conversations with the deaf guests, whom they have invited to see the play.
Francie Nazloo coordinates the dinner as part of her work for CPCC's interpreter education program.
"It was a great way for them to get oriented to the deaf community," said Nazloo through a sign language interpreter. "Especially the ones who had never interacted with a deaf person before."
Four of the seven cast members even say they want to keep studying sign language.
But as fluent as they've gotten, signing and acting simultaneously is hard, said Zac Latham, a Rock Hill High junior who plays James Leeds, the teacher.
"The sign for atheist is 'believe God not,'" he said as an example, moving his hands to make the signs for those words. "But I'm saying atheist."
It took him a while, Zac said, to be able to think, do the signs and deliver his lines in character.
For Keanu, the challenge is expressing emotion solely through signs. Her character doesn't speak at all.
And then there's the sophistication of what the teenage cast members describe as a "very adult" play.
"I've done Shakespeare, and this play is harder," said Gaston Simpson, a junior at Northwestern. "The characters have so much depth."
As teens, it's difficult to understand and convey the perspective of the adult characters, said Kelia Loncaric, a Rock Hill senior who plays Sarah Norman's mother.
Daniel, the drama teacher, knew the play would be challenging when she selected it. She stage-managed a production of it in college but knew it would be tougher at the high school level.
With the top drama students from all three high schools auditioning, she thought it was her best chance.
"We'd be selecting the best of the best," she said.
The students had to go through a rigorous audition in front a panel of judges, including all three high school drama directors, two representatives from the Rock Hill Community Theatre and a Winthrop University theater professor.
Zac said he feels honored to be involved in the district's first joint play.
"It was a high-level competition," he said. "It was the first time I walked out of an audition thinking I did not get a part in that play."
Daniel proposed the collaboration after seeing joint efforts at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska two years ago.
She and the other drama directors - Tamara Altman at Northwestern High and James Chrismon at South Pointe High - decided to try the concept for three years, with each selecting and directing a production successively.
As it turned out, no South Pointe students are involved with this year's production, but Chrismon said he's still thrilled that a new tradition is beginning.
"The kids get a chance to work with the other directors as well as other students, which I think is really valuable," he said.
Daniel hopes the collaborations extend and eventually would like to take a joint production to a national festival.
But for now, she's happy with the collaborations that have already grown out of the experience.
The students now know their fellow thespians at other schools and have started attending each other's productions and cheering for them at competitions.
"If we don't support each other, who will?" Daniel said.
She's proud, too, that the cast and crew made connections in the deaf community and learned their language and culture so enthusiastically.
"The side benefits they've reaped from this have been great," she said.
But for Zach Gladstone, a Rock Hill senior off to college in the fall, the experience has been special for a whole other reason.
"It's the last play I'll do in high school."
Want to go?
What: "Children of a Lesser God," Rock Hill's first All-District Honors Play.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday.
Where: Rock Hill High School, 320 W. Springdale Road.
Tickets: $10 adults, $7 students.