Review: "The Black Drum" by Deaf Culture Centre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

In the classic Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, Linda Loman proudly exclaims that attention must be paid to her husband, Willy. I’d like to take the meaning of this statement further and say that attention must now be paid to another voice that need to be heard in our arts and culture. That voice is the deaf culture for the development of a “fully Deaf authentic innovative artistic experience in Canada” as Producer of ‘The Black Drum’, Joanne Cripps, writes in the programme.

I attended The Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District for the world premiere of the first production in the history of Canadian theatre, specifically musical theatre, of Adam Pottle’s ‘The Black Drum’, produced by The Deaf Culture Centre. After viewing a vibrant opening night production, I predict the deaf culture voice is one which will continue to make its mark within Canadian culture and particularly in the arts community.

I have always been fascinated with ASL (American Sign Language) as I watch the deaf communicate with each other using their hands and eyes. I could watch them communicate with each other for hours as I’m always marvelled when I watch the intensity in their eyes of the deaf and in their communication using their hands.

It’s a drawn curtain we see upon entering the Michael Young Theatre.  A riser is found at the front of the stage.  On stages right and left, there are six similar images (3 on each side) of a sinister looking bald man with black eyes. I’m assuming this might possibly be the Minister (Bob Hiltermann). There is a large bass drum stage right with a chair. I read somewhere before that deaf people will leave vibrations through the floor. The back of the programme contained another interesting quotation from Deaf poet, Ella Mae Lentz, “Music is in the rhythm of the heart…the rhythm of what surrounds us. We have visual rhythm, we have internal rhythm from within ourselves.” I was intrigued wondering how this was all going to mesh and gel together.

At first glance, Adam Pottle’s ‘The Black Drum’ has many dramatic elements woven throughout the text. Traditional musical theatre aficionados might consider the text as having too much or the fact it’s ‘not what they are used to seeing’, but I beg to differ in this instance. It’s simply a matter of moving beyond what we are to expect and consider a completely new way of approaching something, in this case an interpretation of a musical theatre work.

‘The Black Drum’ initially is a fantasy tale whereby we meet the evil Minister who exerts control, recites “BLACK HEART” and depicts a dark, strange, unsettling world with no music, no laughter, no love and no freedom. It’s also a love story about performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) who has trouble in trying to move forward after the death of her wife, Karen (Agata Wisny). It’s also a play about friendship as Joan’s friends and landlord Bree and Oscar (Yan Liu and Daniel Durant) stand by. In the Minister’s world, Bree and Oscar become Butterfly and Bulldog which are the tattoos of Beauty and Strength Joan wears. Additionally, in the Minister’s world, we also meet Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and three children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weeratne and Abbey Jackson-Bell).

I wasn’t prepared for the initial loud and continued bass beat as it makes me feel uncomfortable. In this case, director Mira Zuckerman and playwright Pottle, cleverly used this beat to full effect in order to create a syncopated, exciting, and visually intense story from which I couldn’t take my eyes, and I chose not to be bothered by the intensity of the bass sound. I wanted to see where this story was headed. I advise future audiences to read the plot synopsis in the programme as it is of tremendous assistance in understanding what you are about to see. There is also the voice over subtitles which helps to understand what the scene entails.

The performers are unparalleled and exceptionally talented while highly focussed in each moment.  Mr. Hiltermann’s black eyed, Matrix looking, wizard like Minister of this ‘in-between world’ is palpably sinister. His final appearance at the end of the production left an indelible mark in my memory. As spouses Joan and Karen, Ms. Birley and Ms. Wisny offer a look at a loving couple who, even through death, will do their best to continue to move forward while ensuring the music goes on.  

Ms. Liu and Mr. Durant are quite expressive when they assume the roles of Butterfly and Bulldog – Mr. Durant’s Herculean chest piece amusedly made me aware of that fact. The three young children are adorable in their wide eyed, doe like movements in their dance with Ava.

As Ava, Ms. Den Dekker appears like the Pied Piper leading the children out through dance in her first appearance with them.  There is a beautiful change in her face where her eyes appear to light up as she explains that Joan’s music and colours will diminish the black of the drum and free the prisoners. As the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib, Ms. Bacchus’ strict adherence to upholding her master’s world and what it represents is constantly revealed in her march, not her walk, when she enters and exits various scenes.

Final Comments: I stayed after the performance to listen to the speeches as I wanted to learn more about the work that was involved. There was a tremendous and impressive amount of work by so many ‘behind the scenes’ individuals, rather numerous to mention them all. I would highly recommend seeing ‘The Black Drum’. We are now in a time where it is of utmost importance to hear and to listen to the various voices within our communities. June is Pride Month. June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Let’s now listen to and learn from the Deaf Culture and their story.

‘The Black Drum’ continues to June 29 at the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane.  For further information, visit www.soulpepper.ca or call 1-416-866-8666.

Running Time 75 minutes with no intermission.

Director: Mira Zuckerman; Producer: Joanne Cripps; Stage Manager: Sandi Becker; Set and Props: Ken MacKenzie; Lighting Designer: Chris Malkowski; Costume Designer: Ruth Albertyn; Drummer: Dimitri Kanaris; Projection Design: Laura Warren;

Photo of The Ensemble of ‘The Black Drum’ by Dahlia Katz.