Filmmaker Cat Brewer was inspired to create a documentary about Deaf culture's relationship with music after attending a 2014 concert. Credit: Nightingale Photography

Cat Brewer knows all about the way that music can lift the spirit and transform one’s consciousness. In 2014, in the midst of her marriage imploding, she sought succor in sound, going out regularly to catch musicians who could speak to her bruised heart. But it wasn’t Gavin DeGraw’s chiseled face or confessional songs that caught her eye at his show in Napa that year. Rather, Brewer was struck by the interpreter on stage, translating DeGraw’s lyrics into American Sign Language for deaf and hard of hearing people in the audience. 

“I ended up paying more attention to her than DeGraw, who I had a major crush on,” said Brewer, a longtime Alameda resident now living in rural North Carolina. “I’ve been going to concerts since I was a kid and I don’t remember having seen an ASL interpreter. I didn’t know deaf people enjoyed 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 sprawled into an epic quest to understand the ways in which live entertainment is, or too often is not, made accessible for deaf fans, a search that culminated in her first film, Sign the Show

The feature 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 the hip-hop interpretive organization DEAFinitely Dope and Chance the Rapper’s interpreter during his 2017 tour. 

Sign the Show also screens at Holy Names University on Sept. 16 as part of the Oakland International Film Festival (which runs Sept 15-24 at venues around 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 the ways in which Deaf culture navigates and intersects with live entertainment that hearing people take for granted. The majority of the film focuses on how effective and artful ASL interpretation can open up music for Deaf audiences, starting with an introductory sequence featuring Oakland R&B institution Tony! Toni! Toné! at the Alameda County Fair. As the sound repeatedly drops out and returns, her camera finds the ASL interpreter grooving to the beat and signing the song in rhythm. 

The film makes it clear how tenuous access can be for 40 million Americans who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The door started opening in 1990 when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires venues to provide reasonable accommodations to make performances accessible. Julie Rems-Smario, a longtime education consultant who works at the California School for the Deaf in Pleasanton, remembers what it was like before the ADA, going to see Prince and having “to study his lyrics before attending the concert to figure out what he may be singing,” she wrote in an email. 

“Nowadays we have more access thanks to ADA but we still do not have access everywhere. We still have to reserve ahead of time and make sure that the interpreters are appropriate for the entertainment genre. It is not one size for all when it comes to interpreters in entertainment. For instance, it’s important to hire interpreters with specific skill sets to interpret concerts by rappers such as Waka Flocka.”

Odie Ashford has worked at numerous concerts and festivals over the years. She’d been hired to do small shows several times, but nothing quite prepared her for her first major showcase, signing OutKast and LL Cool J at BottleRock Napa Valley in 2014. Working in two-person teams so one interpreter could take a break every 20 minutes, the job requires more than ASL fluency and endurance. Judgment and the ability to render colloquial, slangy or cryptic lyrics instantaneously are also necessary. 

Ashford realized she had a problem when her white teammate said he was very nervous about signing the N-word. “I said, ‘You have to say nigga! This is hip hop. It’s in every other freaking sentence.’ But we worked it out so that every time they say the N-word, I’d pop up in front of him and we made it a joke. But it’s always a challenge. How much Snoop Dogg do I actually know? How do you sign ‘shizzle my nizzle’? Sometimes you just need to be general, like this song is about a bunch of weed, and try to stay on that beat.”

Brewer explores all of these challenges in Sign the Show while interviewing hearing and Deaf interpreters, Deaf music fans, and musicians who have come to understand that interpreters can open up their performances to audiences who are otherwise locked out. 

Interviews with Kelly Clarkson, Andre 3000, D.L. Hughley, Nyle DiMarco, Camryn Manheim, and D’wayne Wiggins provide interesting insight from the artists’ perspective while also intended to attract “hearing people to watch a film about the experiences of deaf people,” Brewer said. “It’s a very marginalized community. When I first started this I thought I just need to get famous people to draw in hearing people.”  

In many ways, Brewer was primed to investigate how musicians and presenters make concerts accessible for 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 face in accessing music that ended up running in the Oakland Tribune. A friend suggested that the story would make a great documentary, and she was off to the races. She had a lot of experience in marketing and publicity during the years she helped guide the career of jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer, to whom she was married. Aside from a one-day filmmaking seminar she learned everything on her own. 

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

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

While Sign the Show focuses primarily on music, Brewer includes sections on theater and standup comedy, fascinating detours that raise numerous questions about the nature of expression and communication. A particularly active interpreter can inspire a musician on stage, but what might enhance a concert can take a comedy set into uncomfortable territory. Impersonation doesn’t work in deaf comedy and there are entire categories of jokes that just don’t translate into ASL. As one comedian points out in the film, “if you make jokes with the interpreter, you’re taking them away from the people who need them.”  

Brewer accumulated some five dozen hours of material while making Sign the Show, and she’s hoping to produce additional segments that feature more in-depth interviews with interpreters and artists. The film returns to the Bay Area next month as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival Oct. 20-30 when it will screen at yet-to-be-announced locations in Stanford, East Palo Alto, and San Francisco. More than opening a window into a community that’s often ignored, Sign the Show makes a compelling case that the performing arts can entertain, enlighten and enthrall audiences at every volume. 

“It’s my hope that this film will enlighten society at large and motivate them to join the Deaf community’s movement as allies to make each entertainment venue accessible to every Deaf person,” Rems-Smario said. “Deaf people should not have to fight for access all the time. We should not have to think about whether this show or concert will be accessible for us. Enjoying entertainment should be given just like it is for hearing people.”