Salem actor stars in feature film presenting Jesus’ life in American Sign Language

A feature film intended to make the life of Jesus accessible to the Deaf community will premiere this week with the talents of a Salem actor.

“Jesus” is the first rendition of the gospel entirely in American Sign Language, and stars Miles Barbee as Peter.

Barbee, 31, is a residential counselor at Oregon School for the Deaf and a professional actor. He connected with the intensity of Peter’s journey.

“His belief, his denial, his doubt … he had the most action,” Barbee said. Through his portrayal of Peter’s emotional journey in the film, “I hope to touch people.”

Barbee said the project is a group effort that shows what the Deaf community can accomplish.

“It’s not about me. The whole film, cast, crew, that’s what makes the team, the team makes things happen,” he said.

Adapting the Gospel into ASL posed unique challenges. Actors worked with language consultants to modify the language to be period-appropriate, Barbee said.

The ASL sign for “time,” for example, involves pointing at the wrist, referencing a watch someone might wear. Because Jesus’ life took place well before wristwatches, they instead used hands to show the position of the sun in the sky to refer to a specific time.

They also had to come up with a new sign to refer to Jesus as Yeshua, prior to his crucifixion.

Barbee was born and raised in Springfield and graduated from the Oregon School for the Deaf in 2011.

He didn’t intend to become an actor out of school, but began working as a crew member on ASL films and playing small roles. Several people encouraged him to audition for a deaf production of Spring Awakening.

“They were looking for new faces who were young and seemed talented,” he said.

Barbee was worried about live performance, which came with less opportunity to make mistakes, but auditioned and was cast as the lead. The show opened on Broadway in 2015 and earned a Tony nomination for best revival of a musical.

Barbee found he loved acting, and soon took on other projects, including playing William Hoy, one of the first deaf Major League Baseball players, in the 2019 film “The Silent Natural.”

“I love meeting new people and traveling to different locations,” Barbee said. “I love taking off Miles and being a different person.”

He returned to Salem in 2018 after spending about four years in Los Angeles pursuing an acting career and said he’s been preferring a low profile over the glitz of Hollywood.

His friend Whitney Edmunson approached him about the Deaf Missions project.

She’s hearing, but involved in the local Deaf community and signed onto the film as a costume supervisor and sign language interpreter.

Salem actor Miles Barbee, left, with Whitney Edmunson and other Salem residents who appeared as extras in “Jesus,” a Deaf Missions film presenting the Gospel in American Sign Language. (Courtesy/Whitney Edmunson)

Barbee doesn’t consider himself Christian and said the project features actors from a range of beliefs and faith traditions.

He got involved because he wanted to help make the film the best it could be, and said on set there were many respectful discussions about spiritual matters.

“To be fully immersed really helps me to open my own eyes to understanding God,” he said.

Production on the $4.8 million film began in July 2021, with filming starting April 2023. 

It was shot in Los Angeles as well as Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Iowa and as far away as Bulgaria, where scenes depicting King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Jesus’ sentencing were filmed.

The film premiered in Dallas, Texas in early April.

“It was wonderful,” Barbee said.

Edmunson said the film will be released to more than 250 theaters, with an effort to bring “Jesus” to cities like Salem that have a large Deaf population. The film is also captioned in English.

“Jesus” will have two screenings at Regal Santiam on Thursday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 23, at 2 p.m. Barbee will be at the theater an hour and a half before both screenings to meet people and answer questions.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.