Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening night presentation of Nina Raine's Tribes at the Phoenix Theatre. It was an outstanding performance of a truly powerful play.
Billy is a deaf young man returning from the university to his hearing family. The family, a fairly dysfunctional lot (mother, father, and older brother and sister), had shielded Billy from signing as he grew up because they didn't want him relegated to life in the deaf community, and he had learned to communicate through lip-reading. Billy finds love as the story opens, and his new girlfriend, who grew up hearing but is slowing going deaf due to a genetic condition, begins teaching him to sign - and introduces him to life in the deaf community.
Tribes is a story of love and communication. There is a powerful scene in the second act where Billy confronts his family with signing - and tells them that he will no longer speak to them until they learn how to sign. Billy's signs are translated vocally by his girlfriend, Sylvia, who also makes her own oral asides during his rant. The parents and siblings respond verbally, trying to appear compassionate, while there actual (snide) thoughts are shown on an overhead screen. From the perspective of the audience it is clatter and commotion watching the signing, listening to the verbal interchange between the girlfriend and the family, and seeing their thoughts. It gives a sense of what is must be like for a deaf person to try and follow multiple conversations and action while lip-reading. It is tense, and powerful, and confusing.
The play consisted of six characters: Billy (portrayed by an amazing actor named Willem Long who is hearing impaired), Sylvia (the girlfriend played by Gabrielle Van Buren), the mother (Cathy Dresbach), the father (Dion Johnson), the older sister (Caroline Wagner), and the older brother (Marshall Glass). It was a great cast who created characters that the audience connected with and truly cared about. Each turned in memorable performances, but none more so than Willem Long and Marshall Glass.
Tribes empowers and emboldens the audience to go to a place that isn't always accessible, and it shows us how difficult life can be with and without the ability to hear. It's a strong and vital play - one that will stay with you long after the final curtain call. I can't recommend it highly enough.