Seeing music: Groundbreaking deaf musical The Black Drum aims to astound audiences

The Black Drum, billed as the world's first entirely deaf musical theatre production, is part of a growing number of plays that showcase deaf actors and make theatre accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences.

Deaf actors find their voice as growing number of plays made accessible for deaf and hearing audiences

From left to right: Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu and Daniel Durant in The Black Drum, which combines dance, movement, signed music and a rich visual design. (Dahlia Katz/Soulpepper)

A "deaf musical" may sound like a contradiction in terms, but that's exactly how the creators of a new play called The Black Drum are describing it.

"A lot of people think deaf people cannot appreciate music, but that's not true," said lead actor Dawn Jani Birley.

"The world of a deaf person is very different when it comes to music. Because you depend on your ears to receive information and music. We depend on our eyes."

Produced by the Deaf Culture Centre in collaboration with Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, The Black Drum aims to show both deaf and hearing audiences how music can be not only appreciated but also expressed by deaf actors using movement and sign language.

Written by deaf playwright Adam Pottle and performed by seven deaf actors along with three child ballet dancers from the E.C. Drury School for the Deaf, it combines movement, signed music, motion capture projections and dance into a rich visual experience for both deaf and hearing audiences. The only musical instrument played live onstage is a large drum that is amplified and augmented by a prerecorded deep rumbling bass sound track. The strong vibrations can be felt by deaf audience members.

Watch: Actor Dawn Jani Birley gives us a closer look at The Black Drum.

'It's not a bright place:' Dawn Jani Birley on the struggles of being a deaf actor

4 years ago
Duration 2:16
The Canadian actor describes how the new musical The Black Drum shows the experiences of being deaf.

The Black Drum tells the story of a young woman (Birley) whose tattoos come alive and inspire her to explore her subconscious fears on a journey to find her own inner music.

"Many of us do have a real ability to move and feel movement and have rhythm and be able to take in the world visually with our eyes in a musical way," said Birley.

Since the show uses American Sign Language (ASL), the most popular sign language in North American deaf communities, there is a written description in the printed program and a voice synopsis of the story plays over loud speakers for hearing audiences who do not understand ASL. There are also audio assist devices for audience members who are hard of hearing.

Norwegian director Mira Zuckermann, who runs the deaf theatre company Teater Manu in Oslo, has come to Toronto to direct The Black Drum. There have been musicals that incorporate deaf actors, she said, but Zuckermann believes this is the world's first entirely deaf musical theatre production that didn't originate from a sound-based work.

Mira Zuckermann, left, in rehearsal for The Black Drum, billed as the world's first deaf musical. 'This time we are not giving hearing people an advantage,' she says. 'They have to try to understand us.' (Daniel Malavasi/Soulpepper)

"All our lives, deaf people always have to have interpreters to fit into the hearing world," she said.

"This time, we thought, 'Now the hearing world will have to fit into our world, our music, our way of showing it.'

"Hearing people will have to use their eyes. They will have to try to understand our language, our play."

Following its world premiere run in Toronto, which continues through June 29The Black Drum will represent Canada at France's Festival Clin d'Oeil, the largest international deaf arts festival.

'Collaboration between 2 communities'

Meanwhile in the U.S., an original musical theatre production for deaf and hearing audiences is in development, with the dream of eventually getting to Broadway. Stepchild retells Cinderella as the story of a young deaf woman named Orella, who grows up in a society rife with intolerance. She's locked in an attic and forbidden from using sign language.

Amelia Hensley in a workshop of Stepchild by David James Boyd and Chad Kessler. It's a new musical that combines deaf and hearing actors to retell the story of Cinderella as a deaf young woman. (Nina Wurtzel)

Music and lyrics are by David James Boyd and the book is co-written by Boyd and Chad Kessler. The show combines three languages — English, music and ASL — and every performance will be accessible to deaf audiences using ASL and captioning projected onscreen, Kessler explained.

"The whole idea of the show is about the uniting of deaf and hearing worlds," he said.

Since the main creators are from the hearing community, they've brought in many deaf collaborators, including enlisting actor Josh Castille as associate director.

Watch a trailer for the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of the musical Spring Awakening. 

Castille performed in Deaf West Theatre's 2015 Broadway revival of the musical Spring Awakening, which combined deaf and hearing actors. The deaf actors used sign language while hearing actors shadowed them onstage, singing the songs and speaking the dialogue. The production earned rave reviews and three Tony nominations.

"I believe that this story is really about embracing your inner uniqueness," said Castille, who explained that he's fine with the fact that Stepchild originated with creators who are not from the deaf community.

"It's a collaboration between two communities."

The cast of Spring Awakening, including Josh Castille, front centre, and Oscar-winning actor Marlee Matlin, third from left, on the red carpet for the 70th Annual Tony Awards in 2016 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

A growing movement

Theatre for the deaf is more established in the U.S. and Europe than in Canada, but things are starting to change. More theatre companies are providing ASL interpretation for select performances and there are increasing opportunities for deaf actors as some theatre companies integrate them into certain productions.

Regina-born Birley said she loved acting as a child, but she was told she couldn't be part of the drama club at school because she was deaf. She turned to athletics, representing Canada in taekwondo at international competitions. When she moved to Finland and spent time in Norway and Sweden, Birley discovered theatre organizations for the deaf community. That reawakened her love for theatre and she became a professional actor.

Before The Black Drum, Birley played Horatio in Why Not Theatre's Prince Hamlet, an interpretation of Shakespeare's play seen through Horatio's perspective. She used sign language both for her role and to interpret the rest of the play for deaf audiences. It premiered in 2017 and the production toured Canada this year.

Seeing Voices Montreal has put on plays and other events for deaf and hearing audiences since 2012 and hosted the Awakening Deaf Theatre in Canada conference last November. One of its productions, an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, was the subject of a CBC arts documentary series.

Watch a behind-the-scenes trailer about Citadel Theatre's production of The Tempest. 

This spring, Edmonton's Citadel Theatre produced Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, former artistic director of the Tyst Theatre in Sweden, the country's national deaf theatre. She cast six deaf actors (out of a 15-member cast), including Toronto performer Thurga Kanagasekarampillai as Prospero's daughter Miranda.

The deaf theatre scene in Canada has "experienced tremendous growth in the past five years," according to Chris Dodd, a deaf actor and playwright in Edmonton who runs SOUND OFF, Canada's only deaf theatre festival.

The rise is "thanks to an increased affinity among deaf artists, elevated support from arts funding organizations, along with a changing narrative by mainstream theatre companies," he said via email.

"Canada's profile for the deaf arts has never been better."


Nigel Hunt

Arts producer

Nigel Hunt is a longtime CBC News producer covering the arts beat. Previously, he served as a magazine writer and editor.