Jilly – Port Stories and Me: Deaf History & Audiences

Jilly Sumsion

What must it have been like to be Deaf person in the eighteenth century and how would I find out?

Sign language was not a formalised discreet language and few ordinary people were educated. How would a Deaf person have communicated with their family?  After a trip to Preston archives, finding little documented evidence for Deaf culture it prompted me to ‘imagine’ this life.

I have devised a story about a present day Deaf man who is about to scatter the ashes of his brother into the Lune. He is struggling to accept his brother’s death, wondering ‘where’ he has gone, trying to make sense of his absence. As he sits on the steps of the Custom House he considers that history is evident all around him, yet wonders, where is his Deaf history. The play explores grief, loss and history in a personal and a political way.

I didn’t want to ‘write’ the play in English. I wanted to work with a Deaf actor, (Rich Keen) and devise the play in BSL.

Len Grant helped create a visual storyboard, a more economical way of sharing the storyline.

What follows is the early stages of the development of this process. The end play, I hope, will give a Deaf audience their history back.

I hope to develop this into a one-man show that tours to Deaf and hearing audiences.



It’s a visual language and it’s a performance in a way, isn’t it? I was thinking how the Deaf man might articulate grief. If you drag the side of your hand down the middle of your face it can mean sad or it can mean grief, it depends how you convey it.

I couldn’t get that down into written English because you need to physically do it.

I want to find as many signs or ways of expressing grief, and show my character struggling to articulate it, in the same way as someone might struggle to find the words to express themselves.

Illustration by Len Grant.