Tony Award-Winning Teacher Jason Zembuch-Young Makes Theater Inclusive for Students

He accepted the Excellence in Theatre Education Award at the 76th annual Tony Awards, an honor from Carnegie Mellon University.
Jason Zembuch-Young won the Excellence in Theatre Education Award at this year's Tony Awards for his work at South Plantation High School.
Jason Zembuch-Young won the Excellence in Theatre Education Award at this year's Tony Awards for his work at South Plantation High School. Photo by Rick Armstrong
Share this:
Jason Zembuch-Young isn't what you might call a "theater person," even though, as a theater teacher to 150 students at South Plantation High School, he's basically a one-man show.

He says he was terrified when he accepted the Excellence in Theatre Education Award at the 76th annual Tony Awards, an honor from Carnegie Mellon University. Used to life behind the scenes, it was "surreal," he says, sitting with his husband near legends like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Audra McDonald.

When actress Denée Benton introduced Zembuch-Young at the ceremony, she made waves by calling Gov. Ron DeSantis a "Grand Wizard," alluding to the KKK. It's hard to argue with her — the governor has seemingly spent most of his time in office taking away rights, institutionalizing ignorance, silencing dissent, and ignoring the lived experiences of Floridians.

In contrast, Zembuch-Young has dedicated his career to ensuring every student feels seen and supported. "It's about empowering people to look past their circumstances and to be their better selves," he says of the role of a theater teacher. In his 18 years at South Plantation's theater program, he's made theater more inclusive for students who are Deaf, hard of hearing, on the autism spectrum, or have other disabilities, and that thoughtful work has brought great comfort and strength to the larger Deaf and disability communities.

Zembuch-Young didn't set out to work in theater; it repelled him. "I wanted to be John Keating from Dead Poets Society," he says. But theater "found him" at two of his early teaching jobs. One job came with the contingency of running the drama club. And once the kids heard he was in charge, they approached him to get started. Soon, they were experimenting with productions and learning together. Watching them perform was life-altering.

Zembuch-Young's teaching approach focuses on responding to his students' needs and harnessing the craft's need for "accountability and ownership." When one person forgets their lines, the entire production halts. "There is an interdependence that kids get to experience as teenagers that I don't think they don't get in any other capacity."

South Plantation has the only high-school program in the county for students who are Deaf and hard of hearing. When students with disabilities asked to be involved in productions, Zembuch-Young made the theater program more inclusive and accessible. At first, he faced skepticism from a few advocates for the Deaf community. One woman accused him of using Deaf culture as a gimmick but was reassured of his sincerity once she saw how he used American Sign Language (ASL) in productions.

Even in accepting his Tony Award, he used ASL in his speech. A former student who performed as Maria in his 2008 production of West Side Story helped him prepare. "In the middle, she just stopped and started sobbing," Zembuch-Young recalls. "What I didn't realize was that was the first time in her life that she ever actually felt like she belonged somewhere — like she was seen as a Deaf girl." Growing up, the student had refused to sign out of embarrassment. But seeing people sign on stage and being applauded and honored for it, "for specifically embracing her culture," he says, "it was very empowering to her." She told him: representation matters.

Young wants to ensure that his classroom is a safe space for every single one of his kids, including the ones who aren't progressive-minded. "I think it's equally important for us to maintain, in our current political climate, a safe space for all of our students, regardless of which side of the aisle their family resides," he says. While that political climate has changed in Florida recently, he says his school administration trusts and supports him.
click to enlarge
Jason Zembuch-Young works hard at making theater more inclusive for everyone.
Photo by Rick Armstrong
"I have not personally had any kinds of direct impact based on new legislative changes in our state," he says. "I'm focusing on the kids rather than the politics. Am I nervous about the way things are going? Absolutely. I think that the problem we have is a lot of subjectivity. The way that one school district or one administration or one community interprets what has been passed on a statutory level varies."

He says one of the main barriers to inclusion is more localized. Students who are Deaf because of environmental factors — and not for hereditary reasons — often come from less privileged backgrounds. They don't typically have the necessary transportation and support to be included in after-school activities like theater.

"The beautiful thing about teaching theater," he says, "is that I have kids that are from so many different backgrounds that would never even look at each other over the course of a high school day, let alone sit together at a table and have a conversation with each other. And they all come together and are focusing on the production we are producing. Focusing on the work. I think that causes more change for the positive than anything else out there."

With a final production of Matilda, Zembuch-Young will soon be leaving South Plantation. But he won't be leaving the theater. He'll head to a school closer to his home where he can spend more time with his husband and daughter.
KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.