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Deaf Side Story

Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

Mark Rigney

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The 1957 classic American musical West Side Story has been staged by countless community and school theater groups, but none more ambitious than the 2000 production by MacMurray College, a small school in Jacksonville, Illinois. Diane Brewer, the new drama head at the college, determined to add an extra element to the usual demands of putting on a show by having deaf students perform half of the parts. Deaf Side Story presents a fascinating narrative of Brewer and the castís efforts to mount this challenging play.

Brewer turned to the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) to cast the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang at odds with the Anglo Jets in this musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in the slums of New York. Hearing performers auditioned to be the Jets, and once Brewer had cast her hearing Tony and deaf Maria, then came the challenge of teaching them all to sing/sign and dance the riveting show numbers for which the musical is renowned. She also had to manage a series of sensitive issues, from ensuring the seamless incorporation of American Sign Language into the play to reassuring ISD administrators and students that the production would not be symbolic of any conflict between Deaf and hearing people.

Author Mark Rigney portrays superbly the progress of the production, including the frustrations and triumphs of the leads, the labyrinthine campus and community politics, and the inevitable clashes between the deaf high school cast members and their hearing college counterparts. His representations of the many individuals involved are real and distinguished. The ultimate success of the MacMurray production reverberates in Deaf Side Story as a keen depiction of how several distinct individuals from as many cultures could cooperate to perform a classic American art form brilliantly together.

Mark Rigney is a writer whose stories have appeared in THEMA and The Bellevue Review, and whose plays have been staged at the Foothill Theatre Company, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the Alleyway Theatre. He lives in Evansville, IN.

ISBN 1-56368-145-5, 6 x 9 paperback, 232 pages

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