Tribes-It’s Not What It Sounds Like

-Theatre Review by Judith Krummeck

Tribes, the second play by the English theatre director and playwright Nina Raine, is, in its simplest terms, a coming of age story about a deaf son growing up in a family with uncompromised hearing. The play also weaves together many ideas concerning human communication in group contexts or, the “tribes” to which we belong. The award-winning play was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2010 and had its North American premiere in New York City in 2012. Now, it has reached Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre in a production directed by the company’s Founding Artistic Director, Vincent Lancisi.

Billy (played by John McGinty, who is himself deaf, and is also the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Senses Askew Company in New York) is the youngest of three siblings in a dysfunctional Jewish British family (Raine is Jewish on her mother’s side). The older son, Daniel (Alexander Strain), is a would-be academic, who still lives at home. The sister, Ruth (Annie Grier), also still living at home, fancies herself a singer, and performs opera in nightclubs. The highly opinionated father, Christopher (James Whalen), is a writer, and a firm believer in brutal honesty at all costs. The mother, Beth (Deborah Hazlett), meanwhile, writes thrillers in which she goes back and plants the clues once she knows how the book will end. In contrast to Billy’s silent world, the family is always screaming at, or over each other. In other words, even though these four family members can hear, they rarely communicate.

Sylvia (the always luminous Megan Anderson) enters the mix. Born to deaf parents, she is also going deaf when we meet her. This character brings with her the fascinating debate about whether it is better for deaf people to learn to lip-read, or to learn sign language. Everyman Theatre’s Dramaturg for this production, Naomi Greenberg-Slovin, writes an interesting program note about the evolution of sign language, and its gradual acceptance as another, valid language. The performance this reviewer attended included American Sign Language interpretation (there will be other ASL interpretations on June 10th and 19th). Watching the interpreters certainly enriches the experience in unexpected ways. Add the vividness of Anderson’s own signing (which, she most likely had to learn specifically for this production) and McGinty’s, as Billy makes the progression from lip-reader to signer, and audiences begin to realize the vast scope of expression that this silent language allows.

Nina Raine explains that she was inspired to write “Tribes” after seeing a documentary about a deaf couple expecting a child. Those of us for whom hearing is “normal,” might expect that all couples want their child to be able to hear. On the contrary, the couple in the film actually hoped their child would be deaf. Just as any parent wishes to pass on to their children their beliefs, their values, and their language, so the deaf couple wanted to pass on their life experience, including deafness. At the heart of Raine’s play is the supposition of Billy’s family (particularly the father, Christopher) that if they could raise him as a lip-reader, he would be more “normal,” and not an “outsider” belonging to a deaf tribe. What Billy learns, through Sylvia, is the opposite: he is an outsider in his own family, and finds a sense of belonging in the extended family of the deaf community.

The play raises other intriguing issues. For instance, as Sylvia’s deafness progresses, she finds that belonging to the tribe of deaf people, makes her fear that her expressive personality is narrowing. Also, as Billy’s self-confidence improves, his brother, Daniel, regresses to the extent that his childhood stammer returns. Christopher, rather than learning sign language so that he can communicate with Billy on his son’s terms, learns Chinese instead. The metaphors here couldn’t be clearer.

Tribes is a heart-searching play, raising important questions. Many compelling ideas are laid out in the first act; however, an over-stuffed plot weakens concepts. There are red herrings about Billy’s dubious career as a lip reader for legal litigators, and about his on-again, off-again relationship with Sylvia. Nevertheless, the play lingers and probes. Its fundamental message that being a fully hearing and speaking person by no means guarantees empathetic communication, comes through loud and clear.

Vincent Lancisi’s fine production, including sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, uncannily creates a sense of what it must be like to be deaf. Tribes is playing at Everyman Theatre until June 22nd. Catch it this week!


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