One of the rare bright spots during Minnesota’s constant, exhausting vigil over COVID-19, the tragic killing of George Floyd, and rebuilding the Twin Cities after several nights of unrest and destruction is the tireless efforts of one person to tell us all about it.
You probably know Nic Zapko of Minneapolis on sight, if not by name. Zapko, who is deaf, has often been pictured beside Minnesota Governor Tim Walz when you’ve tuned in for one of his regular briefings on the state of the state, dutifully translating his remarks into American Sign Language.
Even if you don’t recognize Zapko’s face right away, she’s easily distinguishable by her emphatic gestures and facial expressions as she signs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she wasn’t available for interview requests on Monday, but here’s a sample of some of her work from that day’s briefing.
Zapko’s presence is, first and foremost, essential. She recently told WCCO how important interpretation is for the deaf community, especially in a time when the facts are always changing and having the latest information is essential.
“The deaf community in Minnesota is incredibly thrilled, and they are finally able to feel included and feel a part of the state and say we are here, we aren’t separate,” she said.
But in addition to being vital, she’s a joy to watch. Even hearing folks have admitted to being transfixed by her grace and her expressive face and hands. A small fan club has formed on Twitter among people who just like watching her do her job, and even the Daily Mail has taken notice.
Shout out to the ASL translator at every @GovTimWalz press conference. I don’t understand ASL but this translator is working overtime and seems to be doing an incredible job.— Lauren Portinga (@LCP_MN) May 31, 2020
I don't know this woman personally, but she obviously lives near me, so when all this is over, I owe her a drink...— Jay Joseph (@JayJoseph2020) May 30, 2020
...because she NAILED this description so well that I thought "I understand it all now."#ASL #Minneapolis pic.twitter.com/IzuTcrJ7Nv
Governor Tim Walz's ASL interpreter @niczapko deserves an Emmy.— Matt is voting blue, no matter who. (@MatthewSenn1) May 29, 2020
Besides that, Zapko has appeared – in all places – as a cameo in a memoir written by former mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak. Back in 2013, on the night same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, he personally oversaw the marriages of over 40 same-sex couples. According to the memoir, it was a marathon event at City Hall that took more than seven hours to complete. But there was one ceremony in particular that stood out.
Nic and Lisa Zapko had met as fellow actors in a play. Lisa was performing Nic’s vocals. At first, Rybak wrote, he wasn’t sure how they’d negotiate the vows. But he needn’t have worried.
“I have never seen sign performed so dramatically, and with such passion, and, without even saying a word, their movements said so clearly to me, and to the rest of City Hall, now watching in silence, 'You complete me.'”
It was such a “powerful moment,” he said, he got the energy he needed to power through the rest of the night.
For more on Zapko’s work – both as an interpreter and an actor – you can check out some of City Pages’ past coverage on her contributions to the arts.