Alexandria Wailes leapt with joy as she watched the 2022 Oscars from her New York City apartment. CODA (which stands for Children of Deaf Adults), the independent movie for which she worked as the director of American Sign Language (ASL), received the industry’s top award for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur. “Honestly, I was not at all surprised by [Troy’s] winning,” Wailes says. “He has had quite the journey and been through so many ups and downs as an actor.”
The same could be said for Wailes herself. The Delaware-born performer recently portrayed the Lady in Purple in a revival of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf at New York City’s Booth Theatre.
Her casting as a biracial deaf actress and dancer (the director sought express permission from the play’s author to cast her) brought a new dimension to the role. She wowed audiences with her elegant weaving of two visual languages, ASL and dance. “She doesn’t just translate the words,” says the show’s director, Leah C. Gardiner. “She translates the experience and emotion.”
Wailes once told a reporter, “I can do anything—except hear.” True to her word, she’s defied the odds and excelled in a career where many talented people try and fail. But being deaf has presented her with opportunities, she points out, that most could only dream of. She’s an accomplished ASL consultant for television, film, music videos and web series. As an actress, she appeared onstage with Meryl Streep in Mother Courage (2006) at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Wailes sang the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” alongside Pink and Leslie Odom Jr. at Super Bowl LII (2018) in Atlanta. She also appeared on television in episodes of Law & Order (2007), Nurse Betty (2010) and Don’t Shoot the Messenger (2015–2016).
“Wailes once told a reporter, “I can do anything—except hear.” True to her word, she’s defied the odds and excelled in a career where many talented people try and fail.”
In 2022, Alexandria Wailes was one of 20 American artists to be named by the Ford and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations as a Disability Futures Fellow, aiming to increase the visibility of disabled creative artists and elevate their work. The award acknowledges excellence in different fields and offers a $50,000 prize to support future projects.
Wailes was a happy baby who had just celebrated her first birthday when pneumococcal meningitis robbed her of her hearing. Her natural instincts and gumption were already apparent as she quickly learned to navigate—and master—the world around. As a toddler, she displayed a strong attraction to music and also loved to dance. “She could feel the rhythm of the music coming out of the record player speakers,” recalls her mother, Marti Converse. “She would dance and dance around the room.”
Converse enrolled her daughter in movement classes, which included dancing to improve motor skills compromised by her illness. Suddenly, a new world opened before the child, and it was one where she felt at home, she remembers.
From those early movement classes, Wailes progressed to structured classes at the Ballet Academy of Newark and participated in Delaware Dance Company productions. As the school’s only deaf student, she relied on her lip-reading ability to follow instructions. Meanwhile, she also attended the Delaware School for the Deaf in Newark (then called the Sterck School) before being mainstreamed to Christiana High School.
At 15, she was one of 34 students chosen worldwide to attend the Young Scholars for the Performing Arts Program at Gallaudet University, the federally chartered private and premier school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. There, for the first time, Wailes shared dance classes with other deaf students led by deaf teachers. “My classes at Gallaudet offered me something special,” she says, “and I learned a lot about dancing.”
Gallaudet encouraged students to “embrace who they are, build connections within and beyond the signing and deaf community, and recognize what they have to offer the world,” Wailes recalls, which inspired and motivated her. She transferred to Gallaudet’s Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) for her last two years of high school before heading to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where she reverted to being the only deaf person in her classes and earned a BFA in modern dance.
Stints at regional dance companies and world tours preceded her arrival in the Big Apple. Her participation in both national and international productions built a bridge for Wailes to other dancers and actors, and also provided an enriching experience for audiences. “The vocabulary of dance is my foundation in communication,” she says.
Wailes is currently focusing on artistic language consulting and directing for the stage, TV and film. Yet, she says, “I use my inherent sensibility of movement to inform many of my choices for productions that incorporate ASL. A lot of the work I do with actors is watching and supporting them in how to be, move and use space while signing.”
Ironically, during a time when the global pandemic closed curtains worldwide, Wailes’ career only gained momentum. In 2020, she was awarded an Obie citation for Sustained Excellence as an Artist and Advocate. Her experience and depth of knowledge of the stage and television led to her work as ASL adviser to such Broadway shows as Dear Evan Hansen, Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, School of Rock, Thérèse Raquin and Kinky Boots.
CODA premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 and won several prizes: Best Director U.S. for writer/director Siân Heder, U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, and the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. CODA won Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast and Best Supporting Actor for deaf castmate Troy Kotsur.
She was cast as the signer of Helen Keller’s actual words in PBS American Masters’ production of Becoming Helen Keller. Watching her sign in the documentary, the viewer can’t help but be reminded of her dance and acting background. She matched the language with the artistic setting in My Onliness, an experimental musical that premiered at the New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory last summer. Returning to acting, she recently performed in Deaf Broadway’s Into the Woods.
“A lot of the work I do with actors is watching and supporting them in how to be, move and use space while signing.”
Between performances, Wailes works at several New York City museums as an educator conducting ASL tours. She is also a teaching artist for the Theatre Development Fund and Interactive Drama for Education and Awareness in Schools Inc.
Grateful for all the doors that opened for her, the member of SAG/AFTRA, Actors Equity Association, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society says she is ready to give back by helping to open doors for others. As she continues to accept new challenges, it’s anyone’s guess where we will see her next.