I saw a performance of “Tribes,” the award-winning play by British playwright Nina Raine, today. It was good, but… is there a word in English for “something so good that it becomes actively frustrating that it wasn’t better“?
“Tribes” is about Billy, a young man whose deafness has left him feeling isolated from his hypereducated, extremely vocal family. Billy doesn’t know Sign Language, but when he meets Sylvia, a vibrant woman who is a fluent signer, he learns Sign in a hurry. And he begins to see the Deaf community, rather than his family, as his “tribe.” (You can see a video made to advertise the show here.)
But “Tribes” is mainly about communication; about the act of speaking (vocally or with hands or otherwise), and about being heard. Billy’s brother Daniel is writing a thesis about the impossibility of true communication, and has auditory hallucinations (i.e, hears voices); Billy’s sister is a wannabe opera singer fascinated by music’s ability to convey emotion apart from words, and whose ability to sing is dependent on her inability to hear what she actually sounds like singing. Sylvia – fluent in ASL because she was raised by Deaf parents, but only recently going deaf herself – is torn between a hearing community she can’t remain part of and a Deaf community that she considers provincial and stifling. Billy’s father is a blowhard who pontificates constantly but seems almost pathologically incapable of listening. At times in the play Billy and his brother are able to communicate wordlessly – but these language-less exchanges are, startlingly, translated on monitors just like the sign language dialog.
I really like this sort of play structure, that attacks a central idea from many vantages. Unfortunately, the end of the play seemed to stumble. In a very effective scene, Billy signed to his family (through Sylvia’s translations) that he will no longer speak to them; if they want him in his life they have to learn to sign. But although the scene was effective, it didn’t feel new – in fact, it reminded me a lot of the climatic scene of “Torch Song Trilogy,” the 1983 gay-rights play by Harvey Fierstein, in which the main character throws his mother out of his apartment because she refuses to give him – gayness and all – respect.
“Tribes” seems torn between two identities – a sort of “Deaf culture 101” entertainment aimed primarily at hearing audiences, and a meditation on how communication happens and fails to happen. In the end, the “Deaf Culture 101” aspect of the show seems to have taken over – Billy’s brother Daniel asks to be taught the Sign for “love” and then Billy and Daniel embrace – and the other theme has failed to be wrapped up. And the theme implied by the title – the tribe we are born into versus the tribes we join – barely got touched on.
For me, the most frustrating underdeveloped thread was Daniel’s voices. Like Billy, Daniel is stifled by his family. And like Billy, Daniel could have been helped a lot by becoming part of a larger community, but doing so might have required him to grow a bit apart from his family. There are a lot of potentially interesting links and contrasts between deafness and disability that could have been explored there, but weren’t.
Coda: The night we attended, there was a question-and-answer after the show. There were a number of Deaf people in the audience, and the ASL interpreters who had interpreted the play were on hand to facilitate communication during the Q&A. One woman in the audience, speaking in ASL, said that glancing back and forth between the actors and the interpreters was distracting. She suggested instead that some modern Deaf theaters do translation by what she called “shadowing,” in which each character who speaks vocally is “shadowed” throughout the play by an interpreter who stands directly behind the character, and moves around on stage with the play to always remain behind the character they are translating.
The actor who took the question said that they had considered going with shadowing, but (paraphrased) were worried that hearing audiences might find that alienating. And so it goes.