An American Sign Language interpreter for the Wu-Tang concert at Bonnaroo has become the festival's breakout star.
The most talked-about performance of last weekend’s Bonnaroo, the three-day music festival in Tennessee, wasn’t that of Jack Johnson, or Of Monsters and Men. It wasn’t even the long-awaited 20th-anniversary reunion of the seminal rap group Wu-Tang Clan. Instead, it was the kinetic interpretations of Wu-Tang’s lyrics by American Sign Language interpreter Holly Maniatty. (See Maniatty’s high-energy work here.)
Maniatty, 32, is a manager for a voice relay services company in Portland, Maine, except when she takes vacation time to do interpretation work at music festivals around the country for Everyone’s Invited, a company that specializes in making events accessible to people with disabilities.
For Laura Grunfeld, the company’s founder, being able to perform such an elemental act of tikkun olam — allowing differently abled attendees to experience something that had been previously denied them — was the result of simply seeing a need and filling it. “I was the human resources director at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in the 1990s,” she told the Jewish Exponent. “One year, I noticed that both patrons and staff were coming to me about dealing with people with disabilities. I realized we needed one person who would have the answers for everyone. It wasn’t until we went public about the festival’s accessibility that the public realized that they could attend.”
The 58-year-old Grunfeld, who is from Massachusetts but attended Philadelphia’s groundbreaking High School Without Walls Parkway Program in the 1970s, is thrilled about the attention that accessibility is getting as a result of Maniatty’s viral video. “It doesn’t matter what you do if people don’t know what you’re doing,” she says, but she is not surprised by the sudden acclaim. “The interpreting aspect of the access program is visually fascinating,” she explains. “It makes sense that people would want to see more of this and pass it along to their friends.”
And what does Maniatty think of her newfound fame? She also took it in stride, although that was perhaps more a result of working nonstop at the festival, where she interpreted concerts by R Kelly, Of Monsters and Men and Bob Saget, in addition to the Wu-Tang set. For her, the hours and hours of unpaid research and interpreting — her Bonnaroo gig was a volunteer position that involved her paying her own way to the festival, with the festival housing and feeding her and the other interpreters from Everyone’s Invited — were all validated in a single moment. “It’s so amazing when you’re working really hard and there are concertgoers who are deaf who are accessing the interpreter and having the same experience as everyone else. It’s all totally worth it for that one moment when everyone is experiencing the same thing at the same time.”