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American Sign Language / Deaf:  "Big River"

A review, by Michaela Hoffman


"Big River"-- Big Bridge


            "I remember when I was a kid, I loved going with my family to musicals. I didn't understand much, but I thought, ‘Someday I'd love to see a show like this with sign language'".  Ed Waterstreet, founding artistic director of Deaf West Theater, who is also deaf, shared this memory with the Seattle Times in an interview about the revival of the hit musical, "Big River".

            The original show opened on Broadway in 1985, winning seven Tony Awards, including ‘Best Musical'.  The show tells of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, featuring the now popular songs "Muddy Water", "Worlds Apart", "Old Man River", and "Waitin' For The Light To Shine".  This revival is not your ordinary musical; it is thought to be the first musical performed in English and ASL simultaneously. 

            The idea for this show actually came to life years ago in Deaf West Theater's tiny 66 seat theater.  It's earlier productions were performed only with deaf actors.  Hearing patrons had access to headsets through which they could hear an English translation of the show.  When Ed Waterstreet began reviewing the box office numbers he learned that a vast majority of their audiences were hearing.  He began experimenting with hearing actors who spoke and signed.

            "Big River" was chosen for this project of uniting music, dance, English and ASL for its storytelling aspects and for its themes of diversity in America.  The creators wanted ASL to be an integral part of the show, not just an interpretation.  I think many deaf people may find it difficult to enjoy the theater even with an interpreter because they have to be so focused on the interpreter they can't really watch and enjoy the show.

            Seven of the twenty actors in this production are deaf.  Five sign language experts wrote an ASL script, while hearing actors speak and sing the original lines and lyrics.  There had to be challenges to overcome with the diversity of the cast.  One of the biggest challenges would be getting the English and ASL in synch.  For example, a deaf actor plays the role of Huck Finn.  This person signs and acts, while Mark Twain, the narrator, speaks and sings for him.  Since English and ASL use different rules of grammar, it would have been difficult to get the phrases to line up.  Stage directions would have to be modified.  A deaf actor would not be able to use or hold a prop when they needed to sigh, or one actor could not turn away from another.  Backstage lights and video monitors gave actors their cues, along with movement cues built into the blocking.  The ASL was tweaked in order to reflect the dialect of the place and time, which I found to be an interesting part of this production.  Although I have obviously a few sign language classes, I didn't realize that there was dialect involved, just like in English.

            I love the idea of combining these languages and cultures.  I think too many times the deaf are shut out of our general culture (especially the performing arts), and vice versa.  This show is a prime example of how these cultures can be brought together to create something new, where everyone has something to gain

Works Cited


Berson, Misha.  "Connecting Cultures Through Deaf Theater".  The Seattle Times  2 June 2005: Northwest Life, pg. C4.


Dezell, Maureen.  "He's Making Noise With Deaf West's ‘Big River', Director Jeff Calhoun Breaks New Ground In Musical Revival Incorporating ASL".  The Boston Globe  14 Nov. 2004: Arts/Entertainment, pg N8.


Evans, Everett.  "Huck's Tale Retold; Free Show Sings, Signs Its Way Into Audience's Heart".  The Houston Chronicle  11 July 2004: Zest, Pg 14


Hager Cohen, Leah.  "Think Tank; Deafness As Metaphor, Not Gimmick". The New York Times  23 August 2003: Section B, Column 2.


Redfearn, Suz.  "Signs of Understanding; ‘Big River' Uses Novel Technology, Staging To Link Deaf, Hearing Cultures".  Washington Post  26 April 2005: Health, pg. F01.

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