Nina Raine’s TRIBES (at SpeakEasy Stage through Oct 12th) is a play about different, sometimes warring communities. In this often funny drama of ideas, assimilation is the nub. Should a Deaf person immerse himself in the deaf world or straddle both the deaf and hearing worlds? What is language? If it isn’t spoken and heard, how else do we communicate? The family in TRIBES has not taught ASL to their deaf son because, they say, it would marginalize him. That decision, they discover, will ignite a firestorm.
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, written in 1980, covers similar territory when a Deaf woman falls in love with a hearing man. Should she struggle in a world which does little to accommodate her or find fulfillment in the deaf world? (CHILDREN was written before cochlear implants, which raised a ruckus among child rights activists, you may remember, because the child had no say in the decision for surgery.) Raine sidesteps the cochlear issue altogether in favor of a domestic free-for-all where the value of “language” is debated at fever pitch.
This is a family that shouts a lot but hardly ever listens. Raine has given almost everyone a different affliction. Father is a bully. Mother swallows her suffering. Sister has no self confidence and a severely mentally ill brother is hearing accusatory voices. The only well adjusted member of the family seems to be the brother who is deaf. (If only Raine had not given him “Annie Dookhan” syndrome, a condition we’re painfully familiar with here in Boston when Dookhan falsified evidence in hundreds of court cases, causing those convictions to be overturned). It doesn’t add anything, except distraction, to the story.
Raine runs rings around the debate with metaphors: The voices which taunt the brother, the mother finally finding her voice in writing, the sister who has majored in voice and the Deaf son given a voice through sign language. You can imagine the din. I even felt overwhelmed by the family and I could go home without them.
I did take away something extremely valuable from the play, though. It raises issues we should all be thinking about in a self absorbed hearing world. And it jogged my memory, reminding me how miraculous ‘hearing with your eyes’ can be. Two lovely instances have been restored to me.
When PHANTOM OF THE OPERA first toured, my newspaper sent me to the blockbuster musical with a group of Deaf students who would experience the music through sign language. The ASL interpreter followed the rising notes of an aria with her hand, grabbing the high note at the top with her fist, her hand descending with the music slowly to her chest. The students “ahh’d” following the arc of the sound perfectly. They gasped at the thrill of what they saw in the face and hands of the interpreter and what they could clearly see/hear as her hands sculpted the air. (We were too far away to see any facial expressions on the performers.) She acted/signed the entire musical with her whole being and it remains one of the most exquisite performances I’ve ever witnessed.
When my friend, Janine, was taking Lamaze classes, her instructor suggested she learn “baby” sign language, too. She signed to her gorgeous baby girl right from birth and so did we. This babe in arms signed until she learned spoken language. I remember a game she loved to play with me. By signing “light” she could get me to turn off and on the overhead light as many times as she wanted, laughing with delight at how easy it was to control an adult. When we went outside, she would point to the sun and sign “light,” knowing full well, I’m sure, that I couldn’t switch that one off or on. We all stopped signing when she began to talk and I, for one, miss it.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara has a stellar cast to transform Raine’s ideas into human beings. Adrianne Krstansky and Patrick Shea as the parents have an uphill battle because of their self-centered point-of-view, “protecting” their son from Deaf people. At one point, O’Gara has Krstansky and Shea trekking the perimeter of the stage, following each other, arguing about nothing, making us laugh and making us realize what Billy and his siblings have endured. It’s no wonder James Caverly as Billy can’t wait to get away from them. Caverly gives a tour de force as the young man who discovers freedom in the palm of his hand.
Erica Spyres, too, dazzles as his tour guide into the Deaf community. Raine cleverly uses the piano to show what Spyres’ character is feeling as she loses her hearing. Arshan Gailus’ soaring sound design treats us to Mozart and Callas so we know what Kathryn Myles’ singer aspires to (and probably will not achieve). Garrett Herzig’s graphics of sound waves let us “see” Mozart’s notes undulate as living vibrations not just as music, an ingenious way for the hearing audience to alter their perspective for a moment.
Nael Nacer breaks your heart as the brother losing his hold on reality, frightened that he is losing his brother, too. That relationship is the one which gives TRIBES its real frailty and humanity.