Tribes at the Barrow Street Theater

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.


This is my first blog post. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen. Now I will commit to positing three times a week. It’s the chicken and the egg thing. I can’t wait for interesting things to happen to write. By writing I will see that life is interesting. Anyway, this is what has finally gotten me to write.

Tuesday night  I read on Facebook that a cat, Mooka, was having a very hard time living in a cage at Petco on 100th Street. I volunteer with a rescue organization that has cared for Mooka for a long time(I don’t know how long) but I had never met him. He had recently been adopted and brought back because he was bullied by the owner’s cat. This was the second time this has happened to Mooka. The volunteers who know him talked of him having a personality change. He was no longer a sweet love-bug, but was swatting and growling. They had to trim his nails very short. I decided to put an ad on Craigslist. The next day I heard from a woman that sounded like a great candidate for a forever home–and luckily she has no cats. She wanted to see him at Petco. I was worried that she’d change her mind if she saw Mooka in his current state so I took him home to give him some TLC for a few days. He hissed and growled at my two cats, obviously afraid. I have to keep him in a separate room.

So yesterday–I was in the room with him and he kept looking at the door, nervous about my cats. I left the room and when I came back Mooka was in the same spot on a low shelf, in the corner. I wanted to pick him up but I knew it wasn’t a good idea. I sat on the bed next to the shelf, sat with my legs folded Indian style and started to sing a chant I’d learned years ago at the Sivananda ashram to Ganesha, the elephant god, the remover of obstacles. It is three lines that are repeated indefinitely–kind of like row, row, row your boat. I closed my eyes and chanted–thinking that I have such a lousy voice it might send Mooka under the bed. As I chanted I concentrated on sending Mooka healing and good fortune. I wanted him to have a good life. I wanted him to heal. A few seconds later he crawled into my lap. I continued to chant–like a lullaby–over and over as I pet him.

It was the first time in a long time that I truly wanted something good for someone else without thinking of myself. Of course the experience was healing not just for Mooka, but for me too. And being with Mooka continues to be gratifying. The adopter will come meet him on Sunday and hopefully she and her eight-year-old daughter will have a great life with him.