Wolf Humanities story slam taps into thriving ASL storytelling culture

A story slam event unites English-speaking storytellers with ASL-speaking performers for discussion and insight.

Windell Wink Smith
Windell “Wink” Smith, the emcee of a March 27 Wolf Humanities Center story slam combining ASL and English-speaking storytellers, is an ASL performer who tours the country. ASL storytelling has historically been a way to share the culture of the deaf community.

The Wolf Humanities Center’s latest “Afterlives”-themed event recognizes a shared thread of humanity among us all: We all tell stories.

On Tuesday, March 27, the Center will partner with the American Sign Language (ASL) Program in the Department of Linguistics, the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, and Kelly Writers House to present “Rebirths, Returns, and Comebacks,” combining five ASL and five English-speaking performers for the Center’s first-ever story slam. Interpreters will be present to translate the series of five-minute-long short stories and personal essays for both audiences.

At a glance, the program is a universally appealing dive into the themes of rebirth and—perhaps especially—comebacks. But more importantly, it’s a unique opportunity to unite two sometimes-disparate communities on an even playing field.

“In our partnerships, we always try to think about how to make not just deaf-accessible, but deaf-friendly events,” says Jami Fisher, ASL program coordinator. “These are people from all walks of life. We try to be very sensitive when we expose our students to understanding what it means to be deaf and the historical experiences therein—but now, also, to understanding what was traditional is no longer.

“To imbue students with the idea there’s no one way to be deaf.”

The partnership with the Deaf-Hearing Community Centre, based out of Swarthmore, was particularly helpful with ensuring minority populations in the Philadelphia deaf community are represented in the program—that those perspectives are heard in a way they’ve historically not been, due to systemic oppression from majority populations, Fisher says.

Moreover, she emphasizes, live storytelling is a highly cherished medium in the deaf community, thus adding further significance to ASL storytellers’ presence at the story slam.

“Typically, deaf people don’t learn ASL from families because most are born to hearing family members, so they learn ASL from their peers through schooling,” Fisher says. “And since there’s no written ASL, live storytelling has always been a way that traditional deaf community values and stories—histories—have been shared throughout generations.

“To be able to do this in this forum, in collaboration with hearing storytellers, is a powerful symbol.”

And, more consequently, Wolf Humanities Center Director James English says, it’s an opportunity for the center to shine a spotlight on an increasingly popular culture of storytelling as live performance.

Windell Wink Smith
Windell “Wink” Smith Jr., an ASL performer and deaf community advocate, will emcee March 27's Wolf Humanities Center story slam, combining ASL and English-speaking storytellers.

“Story slam culture is fairly thriving in popular culture in Philadelphia and New York, and a lot of places right now, so there’s a scene there we’re trying to tap into,” English says. “Storytelling is [also] extremely important in the deaf community, and the capacity to be a charismatic, exciting, and interesting master of narrative in sign language is highly valued in that community. Storytelling is an active scene there as well.”

English says he anticipates the audience will have a varied reaction to the contrast of performance modes, but advises audiences not accustomed to absorbing ASL performances to pay extra attention to body language from the signer, rather than eying the interpreter.

“There’s a lot going on,” he says. “They make eye contact, use gestures, and body language, and so on—as all storytellers do.”

The story slam starts with a reception at 6:30 p.m. and is expected to run for approximately 90 minutes. The emcee for the evening will be popular ASL performer and deaf community advocate Windell “Wink” Smith Jr. The event is free to all, though donations to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, in support of an upcoming production of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” are encouraged.