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 cast’s 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.
"This is a lively and innovative idea, but it hardly seems like sufficient fodder for a book. But not long into the production’s planning stages, Mark Rigney, Ms. Brewster’s husband, realized that the drama around the drama brought together cultures that rarely meet with the sustained intimacy the theater generates; he has put together a surprisingly interesting account of the dynamics that repeatedly created havoc and eventually came together to produce a successful and unusual production."— Santa Barbara News Press
"It was nothing less than 'a spark, a flash' in the theatergoers’ lexicon. The combustion emanated from the Broadway classic 'West Side Story,' as played out in Illinois by a part-deaf, part-hearing young company.
It was a joint venture between MacMurray College and the Illinois School for the Deaf in 2000. And it nearly didn’t happen."— The Boston Globe
"The ISD students form the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang warring with the Anglo Jets, who are played by MacMurray students, some of them deaf education majors. Tension is rampant throughout the rehearsal process with crises cropping up daily. But near the end some of the mess is cleared when Brewer brings in a brilliant interpreter who fills the role most crucial to any theater involving signing actors, but which Brewer did not know of before—a sign master."— SIGNews