New film explores how deaf culture contributes to live entertainment

Cat Brewer knows all about how music can uplift the spirit and transform consciousness. In 2014, amid the implosion of her marriage, she sought relief in sound, regularly going out to catch musicians who could speak to her battered heart. But it wasn’t Gavin DeGraw’s chiseled face or confessional songs that caught his eye during his show in Napa that year. On the contrary, Brewer was struck by the performer on stage, translating DeGraw’s lyrics into American Sign Language for the deaf and hard of hearing in the audience.

“I ended up paying more attention to him than to DeGraw, who I had a major crush on,” said Brewer, a longtime Alameda resident who now lives in rural North Carolina. “I’ve been going to concerts since I was a kid and I don’t remember seeing an ASL interpreter. I didn’t know deaf people liked music. I was completely ignorant, so after the show, I started talking to the interpreter and some deaf people who were there, through the interpreter.

The conversation she started that day turned into an epic quest to understand how live entertainment is, or too often, made accessible to deaf fans, a search that culminated in her first film, sign the show.

The feature-length documentary makes its Bay Area premiere Sept. 14 at her alma mater, Cal State University East Bay, where she’ll be on hand for a post-screening Q&A with two of the film’s subjects, Julie Rems-Smario, an award-winning deaf activist and Matt Maxey, the founder of hip-hop performing organization DEAFinitely Dope and singer of Chance the Rapper on his 2017 tour.

sign the show also screened at Holy Names University on September 16 as part of the Oakland International Film Festival (running September 15-24 at venues across the city). It will be preceded by two short films and followed by a Q&A with Brewer.

The documentary offers a deep dive into how deaf culture navigates and intersects with the live entertainment that hearing people take for granted. The majority of the film focuses on how effective and artful ASL performance can open up music to deaf audiences, beginning with an intro sequence featuring Oakland’s R&B institution Tony! Tony! Your! at the Alameda County Fair. As the sound repeatedly drops and returns, his camera finds the ASL performer grooving to the beat and signing the song to the beat.

The film clearly shows how tenuous access can be for 40 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans. The door began to open in 1990 when President George HW Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires venues to provide reasonable accommodations to make performances accessible. Julie Rems-Smario, a longtime educational consultant who works at the California School for the Deaf in Pleasanton, recalls what it was like before the ADA, going to see Prince and having “to study his words before attending the concert to understand what he may be singing,” she wrote in an email.

“Today we have more access thanks to ADA, but we still don’t have access everywhere. You still have to book in advance and make sure the performers are suitable for the type of entertainment. This n There’s not one size fits all when it comes to entertainment performers. For example, it’s important to hire performers with specific skills to perform gigs by rappers such as Waka Flocka.

Odie Ashford has worked in many concerts and festivals over the years. She had been hired several times to do small shows, but nothing really prepared her for her first big showcase, signing OutKast and LL Cool J to BottleRock Napa Valley in 2014. Working in two-person teams so a performer could do a break every 20 minutes, the work requires more than ASL fluency and endurance. Judgment and the ability to instantly render colloquial, slang or cryptic lyrics are also required.

Ashford realized she had a problem when her white bandmate said he was very nervous about signing the N-word. “I said, ‘You gotta say nigga! This is hip hop. C It’s in all the other creepy phrases. But we made it so that every time they say the N-word, I just show up in front of him and we made a joke out of it. But it’s still a challenge. How much by Snoop Dogg do I actually know? How do you sign ‘shizzle my nizzle’? Sometimes you just have to be general, like this song is about a bunch of weed, and try to stay at this pace.

Brewer explores all of these challenges in sign the show while interviewing hearing and deaf performers, deaf music fans, and musicians who have come to understand that performers can open up their performances to audiences that would otherwise be locked in.

Interviews with Kelly Clarkson, Andre 3000, DL Hughley, Nyle DiMarco, Camryn Manheim, and D’wayne Wiggins provide interesting insight from the artists’ perspective while also aiming to inspire “hearing people to watch a film about people’s experiences. deaf”. said Brewer. “It’s a very marginalized community. When I started, I thought it just needed famous people to attract hearing people.

In many ways, Brewer was willing to investigate how musicians and presenters make concerts accessible to deaf fans. She had spent the past two decades teaching communications at East Bay community colleges such as Laney, Chabot, Las Positas and Diablo Valley. After her experience at the Gavin DeGraw concert, she wrote an article about the difficulties deaf people have in accessing music that ended up appearing in the Oakland Tribune. A friend suggested the story would make a great documentary, and she went shopping. She gained a lot of experience in marketing and advertising during the years she helped shape the career of jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer, to whom she was married. Apart from a one-day seminar on filmmaking, she learned everything on her own.

“I went to Best Buy and bought an $800 camera,” she said. “I thought I would upgrade soon, but eight years later I still have it. I literally just started my stampede with gratitude and love, reaching out to people. I had a two-year-old tweet interaction with Chuck D trying to coordinate an interview. I would stand outside Cobb’s in San Francisco and try to catch the comedians as they left.

Cat Brewer (third from left) with Waka Flocka Flame and friends. Credit: Courtesy of Cat Brewer

Whereas sign the show focuses primarily on music, Brewer includes sections on theater and stand-up comedy, fascinating detours that raise many questions about the nature of expression and communication. A particularly active performer can inspire a musician on stage, but what might improve a gig can take a comedy into uncomfortable territory. Impersonation doesn’t work in deaf comedy and there are whole categories of jokes that just don’t translate to ASL. As one comedian points out in the film, “if you make jokes with the performer, you take them away from people who need them.”

Brewer amassed about five dozen hours of material while making Sign the Show, and she hopes to produce additional segments that feature more in-depth interviews with performers and artists. The film returns to the Bay Area next month as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival October 20-30, when it screens at yet-to-be-discovered locations in Stanford, East Palo Alto and San Francisco. More than opening a window to an often overlooked community, sign the show convincingly demonstrates that the performing arts can entertain, enlighten and captivate audiences with every volume.

“I hope this film will enlighten society as a whole and motivate it to join the deaf community movement as allies in making every place of entertainment accessible to every deaf person,” Rems-Smario said. “Deaf people shouldn’t have to fight for access all the time. We shouldn’t have to wonder if this show or concert will be accessible to us. Enjoying entertainment should be given as it is for hearing people.

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