The World’s First Entirely Deaf Musical Is Now on Stage in Toronto
The Black Drum is a fairy tale that feels like Alice meets Dracula in a black & white wonderland – and sharing the music and love we carry in our hearts and bodies defeats the evil, at least for the moment. Sounds familiar? Maybe, but I can assure you that what you can see and feel at this show is truly extraordinary.
Produced by Soulpepper and the DEAF CULTURE CENTRE, a project of the Canadian Cultural Centre of the Deaf (CCSD), The Black Drum is a visually stunning spectacle and an emotionally-engaging performance. It is also the world’s first entirely Deaf musical.
Deaf spectators were intensely engaged, laughing, frowning, or gasping, obviously enjoying the evening. This show is not aimed solely at a Deaf audience though, the rest of us had a chance at what I would call enriched theatre. The first thing Sharon, my friend and companion on the opening night, told me at the end was “It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life!” And she was right.
Producing it required international efforts and organizational mastery. The director and some of the actors have been brought from abroad, complementing the Canadian artistic, creative, and backstage team. The team includes a signed music mentor (Pamela Witcher), two ASL masters (Ron Hall and Helen Pizzacalla), and a large team of ASL and Norwegian Sign Language/English interpreters. I thank them all!
Mira Zuckermann, The Black Drum’s director, is an award-winning Norwegian theatre director and actor, and the founder of the internationally-renowned sign language Teater Manu. She was born Deaf in a Deaf family, as she told the opening night audience. This project compelled her to reflect upon music for Deaf people and to enhance the play’s visual aspects so that the Deaf audiences would enjoy it.
The video projections (Laura Warren) are works of art in and of themselves, which inform the story and make it more emotionally effective. The oversized black columns and the faceless human silhouettes seemed ever grimmer in contrast to Joan’s colourful visions. The animated Decaying Tree resembles a Disney character, but one with a moral conscience.
Before the show, I was very excited, though a bit anxious, to experience signed music for the first time. It proved more engaging than I could have imagined. Sound designer Adam Harendorf combined live drumming (Dimitri Kanaris) and prerecorded electronic sounds, creating the vibrations specific to signed music, which had a profound visceral impact.
With metallic scaffolding, a platform across the stage and two enormous screens, the set (Ken Mackenzie) does not try to hide that we are watching a performance. Costumes (Ruth Albertyn) and makeup (Maryam Hafizirad) strengthen the show’s expressionist, fairytale nature. They may also remind some of you of a dictatorship where people wear black uniforms.
All the actors bring a high level of energy and a contagious passion. Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) struggles to overcome her grief after the death of her wife, she discovers, and then shares, her inner beauty and art. Her monologue, “What Is Music,” is one of the most powerful scenes in the show.
Karen (Agata Wisny) is a ghost in a hoop with the grace of a china doll in a music box. Her sorrow comes across in half gestures and long glances.
Ave (Corinna Den Dekker) is convincing in her role as an obeying subject and then passionate rebel. Without much to build on from the writing, the Minister (Bob Hiltermann) and Squib (Natasha Bacchus) are as evil as needed, while Hilterman’s scene of live drumming had me too under its black spell.
Bulldog (Daniel Durant) and Butterfly (Yan Liu) are devoted companions as Joan’s tattoos that come to life, with Liu’s calligraphic dances signing the power and beauty of flying.
Most impressive, however, are the three brave and talented child actors and dancers, Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereratne, and Abbey Jackson-Bell from the E.C. Drury School for the Deaf. Their acting and movements are living proof to the misery of a colourless, loveless world and, eventually, to the joy of freedom.
Deaf ballet (Patricia Witcher, choreographer, and Jeffrey Baker, ballet instructor) is certainly the unexpected bonus The Black Drum provides the audiences. As Sharon, my friend, told me, the dance of both adult and child performers was “almost as a kind of signing in itself because it also told the story.”
My only regrets are about the script. It does a great job at respecting the fairy tale conventions. But it also throws several social issues into the mix without integrating them into the story.
One example is Money. Oscar, Joan’s roommate in the realistic beginning of the play, and then Bulldog, in the fantasy world, recite a poem called “Money” while, on the screen, a $20 bill flies over the dark landscape. It is the only coloured element, as green as we know it and with the Queen staring us down from the screens. Intense signed music makes us all tremble.
With such a strong moment, I was eager to see how money would further tie into the story – yet, no one mentioned it again. The Minister’s subjects kept dancing in their black costumes, not slaving in factories or mines to make money for him. I felt both frustrated and confused about why the script included it at all. These dramaturgical concerns aside, The Black Drum has given me great joy.
It is an impressive artistic accomplishment of a passionate and talented team, as well as a significant cultural and social event. Even though ALS is the only language used on stage, being Deaf never comes up either in the script or in the show. It is just treated as a given, one of the characters’ personality traits, not as a disability.
In this way, the show avoids the didactic nature of many other productions that seek to increase awareness about human diversity of any kind, but fail to dissociate themselves from the concept of marginalization. It opens the way toward the rightly-sought “normalization” of signed theatre in Canadian and global performing arts. I look forward to productions that tell real-life stories, helping us better understand each other.
Until then, please remember we can enjoy fairy tales at any age and take your children to The Black Drum – a beautiful musical about courage, compassion, and love.
- The Black Drum is playing until June 29, 2019 at The Young Centre for Performing Arts (Distillery District).
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with an additional matinee on Saturday at 2pm.
- Ticket are $50, with $25 for students and ODSP (ID required); if available, rush tickets go on sale for $30 in person 60 minutes before the show begins.
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-866-8666, or in person at the box office
- This production contains flashing light effects.
- This production is presented with Written & Voice Synopsis and is accessible to non-ASL audiences
Photo of The Black Drum Ensemble by Dahlia Katz