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.