Deaf Side Story

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Deaf Side Story is a musical based on West Side Story, itself an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. Takes place in New York City during the mid-1950s, the musical based on West Side Story explores the rivalry between the two gangs Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different cultural backgrounds (Deaf and Hearing). The members of the Sharks from Puerto Rico are taunted by the Jets, a white working-class group. The young protagonist, Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The theme, music, and dances focus on culture problems.


The well-known American musical West Side Story has been staged many times. However, a Deaf school in Jacksonville and MacMurray College in Illinois remade the musical into Deaf Side Story. Diane Brewer, drama instructor was determined to put on a performance by having deaf students and hearing students perform the well-known musical West Side Story. The musical is a rivalry between Sharks and Jets, two teenage gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. Members of the Sharks gang are from Puerto Rico and the members of the Jets are white working class group. Just like the storyline of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare’s Maria, sister of Bernando leader of the Sharks, falls in love with Tony member of the Jets, which was not accepted by either gang. Deaf Side Story portrays similarities from West Side Story, however in this storyline two different cultures are shown, Deaf culture and the hearing world.


Brewer went to the Illinois School for the Deaf to cast the Sharks. Hearing college performers at MacMurray auditioned to be the Jets. Once Diane Brewer had cast her hearing Tony and deaf Maria, came the challenging part of teaching her whole cast to not only sing but learn to sign, and dance all the songs the famous musical is known for. The idea seemed so simple at first. Brewer thought the language of American Sign Language should be onstage, not off. She then found Christopher Smith, a deaf choreographer from Chicago, who was more than happy to help with the musical. With great support and assistance, they were ready to start the show. Deaf Side Story also showed Smith’s talents. It demonstrated that deaf performers could accomplish expectations of those who think they lack a sense of musicality. Brewer and Smith continued to explore the nature of their deaf and hearing collaboration as well as the intercultural connections between the Deaf and hearing communities. Deaf Side Story gave Brewer the opportunity to tell a story about two people who fall in love across a cultural-linguistic barrier. Language divided the Jets and the Sharks but brought Tony and Maria together as they began to use the same language.

Deaf Side Story Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical[edit]

Deaf Side Story Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical by Mark Rigney, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, portrays the progress of the production of the musical. Rigney included everything from the production, including all the frustrations and achievements, and the problems between the deaf and hearing cast members. He followed the production and kept records on what was happening on specific days and times, and on each cast member. He described challenges with interpreters and with ensuring that deaf and hearing audience would be able to understand both sides. He then covers successful production of Deaf Side Story showing individuals from many cultures and how they cooperated to perform a classic American musical. Rigney titles each chapter from the hit songs in the original West Side Story. He describes the problems having to get hearing members of the audience to understand the Sharks’ signing in their scenes. Rigney follows Brewer on how it all started and the challenges they all faced.


  • Brewer, Diane “West Side Silence Producing west Side Story with Deaf and Hearing Actors” Theater Topics 12.1 (2002)
  • Rigney, Mark “Deaf Side Story; Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classical American Musical” Washington DC Gallaudet University Press 2003.