The word tribe has many connotations: family, community, belonging, an entity you’re initiated or born into. But inclusion doesn’t guarantee the perfect fit.
Nina Raine explores this concept in her play Tribes, now playing at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 15. Her play follows Billy, the only deaf person in a hearing family. It’s not just any family, but a group of boisterous busy bodies who routinely mock and judge each other and everyone else. There’s Christopher the pompous patriarch writer, and Beth, the matriarch writer with her heart in the right place, and their three kids: Billy, the deaf college student, Ruth, the aspiring opera singer, and Daniel the academic wannabe. All three children live at home, to their parent’s known chagrin, and each family member attempts to carve out their own life, with lack of familial support.
On the surface the family members heavily interact with each other, but it’s clear that not much real communication is taking place. And communication, or lack thereof, is at the heart of Tribes. Billy has been raised to speak and to read lips, but since his voice isn’t the loudest in the room, he’s rarely heard. In multiple scenes, Billy’s family races around him slinging insults at each other, not allowing him to catch up or follow along. When people storm out of the room, Billy asks, “What happened?” Only to be appeased by a family member with, “Nothing.”
While his family does acknowledge Billy’s place in the family — often calling him the best member — Billy lives isolated in a cocoon, with his channels of communication often ignored or controlled by his family. Billy soon finds a sort of savior in friend/girlfriend Sylvia, who teaches him American Sign Language (ASL) and finally gives Billy another avenue to express himself. The ASL subtitles are projected onto various blank areas of the set, allowing the audience to follow along as Billy and Sylvia utilize another form of conversation outside of spoken English.
The play examines how communication can intertwine with identity. At the beginning we see Billy struggle to be heard, then eventually we see him gain a voice and demand that his family learn how to sign or he will abandon them, which he ultimately does. Both Billy and Sylvia mirror each other in terms of access to the hearing and deaf world. As Billy learns to sign, shuns the people he’s grown up with and embraces the deaf community, Sylvia does the opposite. As a hearing child born to deaf parents, Sylvia grew up signing and spent her life as a citizen of both worlds, but when we meet her we learn she’s starting to lose her own hearing, becoming a permanent member of the deaf world. She begins to push against the deaf community as she comes to terms with who she now is, sans the ability to hear.
Each character in the play has his or her own obstacle to overcome — learning to navigate newfound freedoms or regaining a sense of self after hardship. The play often cites the limitation of communication, and as the play progresses it starts to focus on the non-verbal subtext of what we say. Not everything needs to be spoken or signed to be understood. And we see this when instead of subtitles, we read what’s not being said.
In one poignant scene, after Billy has displaced himself from the family and gotten into a bit of trouble, he comes home and comes across his brother Daniel, who’s tangled in a web of mental illness and struggling with his own identity crisis. As Billy and Dan stand silent and motionless, the projection reads, “Why did you do it?” “I don’t know,” a vague yet loaded exchange between the two that unexpectedly opens the door to authentic communication.
Tribes is relatable to anyone who’s ever felt misunderstood and unheard. With a talented cast, the subject material shines, as does the direction by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company co-founder Stephen Weitz. Through his work, Weitz is able to tell a complex story, allowing each character room for development.
The actors behind Billy’s family — Andrew Pastides (Daniel), Kathleen McCall (Beth), Stephen Paul Johnson (Christopher) and Isabel Ellison (Ruth) — are all superb. The introduction to the family is quite a shock as they’re a loud, foul-mouthed bunch with some controversial opinions. But each actor adds a certain amount of depth to their character, making the audience empathize with their personal struggle. Pastides gives an especially exceptional performance taking his character on an emotional journey through rejection, doubt and insecurity.
The stars of the show, Kate Finch as Sylvia and Tad Cooley as Billy, also provide standout performances. Finch excels as Sylvia, who borderlines the manic pixie dream girl trope, but actually serves as a well-rounded character who’s trying to find her place in the world. The best moment of the show goes to Cooley as he gives an expressive speech in sign language, finally standing up to his family and demanding them to listen. Cooley’s passion is palpable and his signing beautiful.
At the end of the play, we see openness, acceptance and forgiveness, proving that as the members of tribes grow and change, so do the entities themselves.