BWW Review: Historic Deaf Theatre Piece THE BLACK DRUM Shines In Every Aspect Of Its Production
THE BLACK DRUM is a multi-sensory examination of oppression and self-expression that shows just how necessary deaf theatre is. Produced by the Deaf Culture Centre and Soulpepper and directed by Mira Zuckerman, the story, written by Adam Pottle, draws from classic tropes - placing a down-and-out hero in an unfamiliar world, good facing off against evil, and a group of sidekicks with wildly different personalities - to great effect.
The audience follows Joan (Dawn Jani Birley), a woman grieving her wife Karen (Agata Wisny) as she is transported to an in-between world controlled by a sinister leader, the Minister (Bob Hiltermann). Relying on the friends she makes in the netherworld and her newly-come-to-life tattoos, Butterfly (Yan Liu) and Bulldog (Daniel Durant), Joan must learn to utilize her skills, move forward without Karen, and face off against the Minister to bring colour back to the world.
As I am not familiar with American Sign Language (ASL), I was worried that it would be difficult to follow the story, but thanks to scene synopses delivered through pre-recorded audio and a comprehensive summary in the show program, THE BLACK DRUM ensures that anyone can partake in the performance. Even without those resources, the entire cast is able to convey emotion through strong facial expressions and each actor leverages their entire body while signing and dancing to ensure all audience members understand what's happening in the story.
As the heroine of the story, Birley delivers a powerhouse performance throughout the show. From her first appearance at her wife's grave, it is unmistakeable that Joan is a woman in mourning. She has great chemistry with each of her colleagues, although she shined most in her incredibly tender and highly moving reunion with Wisny.
Liu and Durant make for a charming odd couple with Liu's flowing, delicate movements contrast Durant's swagger to great effect. Portraying animals come to life poses an interesting challenge, and it's one that Durant excels at in this role - everything about his movements, characterizations, and even subtle actions like lifting a leg during a good head scratch scream puppy dog.
The residents of the in-between world are brought to life beautifully, from Hiltermann's commanding presence and sinister facial expressions to the dance teacher Ava's (Corinna Den Decker) character progression, transforming from a nervous woman overseeing her wards (ballet dancers Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne, and Abbey Jackson-Bell) to a brave fighter.
Setting a story in a fantasy world comes with its own challenges, but THE BLACK DRUM's creative team certainly goes above and beyond to make it convincing. Lighting (Chris Malkowski) is incredibly striking, with stage lights and LEDs at all levels and angles allowing for quick scene changes and moody moments. The costumes (Ruth Albertyn) of the netherworld citizens are a great contrast to Joan and her tattoos, blending steampunk and Victorian pieces in a way that screams goth and emo aesthetic in the best possible way.
The projections (Laura Warren) are an efficient way to set scenes, although at times they seem more like computer screensavers given the stylistic 3D design. However, the use of a sheer curtain (set and props design by Ken MacKenzie) to create a 3D effect helps create an interesting depth to the various environments.
Although the production is completely signed, sound design (Adam Harendorf) plays a crucial role. Using an onstage drummer (Dimitri Kanaris) to create vibrations and boosting the sound and bass through speakers makes the room shake, adding to the concept of the drum's power in the Minister's world.
THE BLACK DRUM is, at its core, a ground-breaking piece of Canadian theatre for the deaf community that will hopefully prompt other artists to come forward and share their stories and talents.
THE BLACK DRUM runs through June 29 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/the-black-drum/6928
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz