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Review: “Tribes”

“This is the first time you’ve listened to me… and it’s because I’m not speaking.” — Billy, “Tribes”

I don’t have much experience with theater: most of the plays I’ve seen have been musical theater, which is a whole different sensory ballgame. But when I heard Tribes advertised on our local radio station, I was intrigued. Written by Nina Raine and directed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre by Jonathan Moscone, it’s the story of a deaf man, his hearing family, and his new girlfriend — a woman who was born hearing, to Deaf parents, and is now going deaf herself. The play is presented in a combination of English and ASL, and it centers around language, community, and identity. I don’t know if you could have written a play better suited to catch my interest.

I’ve been fascinated by Deaf culture since reading an article several years back that pointed out that unlike blindness or other physical differences, deafness is a fundamental identity for many of those possessing it because it shapes communication. Anyone who’s poked their nose into this debate knows that there are a lot of very contentious conversations around what the “best” course of action is for a child born deaf to hearing parents: cochlear implants to allow them to join the hearing world? Immersion in the Deaf world of ASL? Training in both ASL and lip-reading? Language is a powerful categorizer of people: even Durkheim said as much, in his essay on social facts. “I am not obliged to speak French with my fellow countrymen… but I cannot possibly do otherwise.”

These are the issues the play grapples with. The main character, Billy, played by James Caverly, grew up in an academic family who argues recreationally: the first scene of the play vividly demonstrates Billy’s struggles with fitting in when he has to work twice as hard as everyone else just to catch half the gist of what’s being said. His family has discouraged him from learning sign language, saying that he doesn’t need it and shouldn’t isolate himself with “those people”: but when he meets native signer Sylvia, played by Nell Geisslinger, and starts to learn her language, it opens up a new world to him, and starts drawing lines between him and his family (as in the quote above, which is signed rather than spoken aloud as Billy confronts his family asking them to learn sign). The central conflict of the play is where Billy fits: the deeper takeaway point, or at least the one that resonated with me, is that we all have multiple “tribes,” and no one fits into all of theirs all the time.

The play is definitely a study in two languages. There were supertitles presented when characters signed (except for during one sequence when the audience was put in the position of Billy’s family, shut out from a conversation for the first time). The program noted an interesting conflict that came up with staging the play in the US; the playwright is English, the play is set in London, and the original production was in English and British Sign Language. Although the actors in this production still speak with British accents, the American producers elected to change the signed dialogue to ASL because of significant differences between the two languages. Native speakers of American English can understand British English, but leaving the signed dialogue in BSL would have been like staging the play in Welsh. I was also fascinated by the program interview with the ASL Consultant, Anthony Natale, where he noted that since James Caverly is a native user of ASL and Nell Geisslinger isn’t, one of his tasks was to make sure not only that Sylvia looked fluent but that Billy did not.

I was also impressed by the way the play presented a variety of viewpoints on the controversies around use of ASL and around Deafness as a culture. There are demonstrations of signed poetry and things ASL can do that spoken language can’t: but alongside these commendations, we hear Sylvia’s criticisms of the Deaf community and see her grief over the loss of her hearing, something that Billy can’t understand.

The play left me thinking about bilingualism, Deaf culture, overlapping identities and what makes someone a member of a community. It’s at Berkeley Rep through May 19th: if you’re in the area, I would heartily recommend checking it out.

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