Yesterday I had the amazing experience of seeing Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Barrow Street Theater. The play concerns a family with a deaf son. It was riveting.This was one of two performances interpreted into American Sign Language and the audience, made of largely of deaf people, was especially captivated.
When I speak of my work as a sign language interpreter, the thing that surprises people most is that most hearing parents of deaf children don’t learn to sign. It is common for me to interpret between immediate family members. People are incredulous–why wouldn’t parents want to communicate with their children? In Tribes the family believes it is best for their son to bring him up orally, as if he were hearing. The character of Billy doesn’t sign at all, and relies on lipreading and guesswork to understand his family.
Russel Harvard, the actor who plays Billy, was born deaf. His parents are deaf, as are his grandparents. At a discussion with the cast following the play he announced that he recently became an uncle–his nephew begins the fourth generation of deafness in his family. Harvard did not personally experience the frustration of his character. Being the only deaf member of the cast, he said, helped him prepare for the role.
What is great about Tribes is that it doesn’t feel pedantic, but is a story of a family– a troubled and colorful family struggling to communicate and accept each other. It is superbly acted and the intimate theater in the round at the Barrow is a perfect venue. The action was gripping and immediate. I would recommend the play to anyone who enjoys good theater. To be part an audience with so many deaf people who have a personal understanding of the protagonist’s struggle was particularly profound.