Speakeasy Delivers Insightful, Poignant ‘Tribes’ at BCA (4.5 Stars)

        TRIBES, written by British playwright and director Nina Raine, is about being a hearing person, as much as about being deaf. I heard about the play, TRIBES, from friends who saw it in New York, knew my background, and suggested I see it. As a Native American, I thought it might be about Native tribes, but they quickly informed me it would be of interest because I was a Special Education teacher. Coming to this show, I knew it would be about being deaf, but this serious, provocative drama is much more than that. It’s about the multitude of ways that we hear sound and language – lip reading, books, music, television, computer, and written words as subtitles. It’s also about family as Tribe, as much as any group or community that one may belong to.

        The setting for the performance reveals clues to the drama’s background and tensions. The production is performed in the ’round’ (or ‘square,’ in this case), the stage clearly set up as a house with a living room, grand piano, dining room, and kitchen. Large carpeted areas under the furniture imply walls lined with low shelves filled with books. The four outside walls, including windows, hang at an interesting angle from the ceiling (used throughout the play as electronic message boards). Before the first actor steps on stage, while the house lights are still on, distinctive opera music plays. This appears to be the home of a cultured, literate family, with a love of great music. But within the walls, the characters clash noisily, except for the main character, Billy, who experiences everything in silence.

Tribe opens at the family dining table. A still married British mother and father drink tea in the afternoon with their three kids who have ‘boomeranged’ and are now adults living once again under their parents roof.

         James ‘Joey’ Caverly, a graduate of Gallaudet University and a veteran actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf, plays their son Billy. Billy is deaf from birth (as is Mr. Caverly) and no one in the family, not even him, has learned sign language (though Mr. Caverly has). In order to make it easier to assimilate into the ‘hearing world,’ his mother, Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) has taught him to read lips. In another family, folks might make sure to talk slowly, face Billy, include him in jokes, or re-explain what is going on. Instead, the hurt is apparent when Billy misses the intimate word play of other members.

The family includes Billy’s sister, Ruth (Kathryn Myles), an aspiring opera singer criticized by her brother, Daniel (Nael Nacer), for being a terrible singer. He is writing a thesis about the insignificance of language and has his own speech issues. Their father, Christopher (Patrick Shea), is harsh to both his children and is trying to learn Chinese and French. The two siblings constantly nit-pick each other, while their mother, Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) writes a ‘marriage-breakdown detective novel.’ One line sums up the family, ‘Nothing is more uniting for two people than b-tch-ng about a third.’ We get to, literally, peer into a house and watch an argumentative clan’s dynamics only to discover that this ‘tribe’ shows love through their challenging and heated discussions.

        I felt a kinship with this family.

When Billy’s love interest, Sylvia (Erica Spyre) teaches him American Sign Language (ASL), she opens up the ‘tribe’ of the deaf community. She explains the ‘deaf hierarchy’ where folks who are born deaf and use ASL are at the ‘top.’ She also gives Billy a ‘voice’ in more ways than one. At home, he refuses to read lips, turning the table on his family and expecting them to learn ASL. The family’s response is along these lines, ‘He’s fine how he is. Why do people always want to change others? He’s being bullied.’ But Billy is ready to quit his family tribe if they won’t change, even while Erica, in the process of losing her hearing completely, is mourning the loss of sound as well as the vastly larger number of people who can communicate with her.

        Most of us at the Saturday night performance are ‘audists’ or ‘those who can hear.’ Or, at the very least, part of the status quo who does not have to think about what they can or can’t hear or who else might have a difficulty with sound. We have the ‘advantage’ in modern society. We must actively think about what it means to not have ‘access’ to sound, as we would have to actively think that someone in a wheelchair might not have access to a building with stairs. TRIBES make us think. This production is like a good painting, bringing out inner feelings or causing us to linger on its meaning as we stand in front of it.

        M. Bevin O’Gara (BFA from Boston University in Theatre Studies), directs the area premiere of TRIBES, which will be her third directing project featuring deaf characters, the other two being Clybourne Park for SpeakEasy Stage and Love Person for Company One There are no curtains and actors often remain on stage as scenes switch, moving to different sections of the stage to signify a new day or scene. Theater patrons may see the face of one actor using ASL and the back of another, but because of the nature of this kind of theater, they will see all the actors face front on at some point. Actors enter and exit from multiple places in the theater – so you will want to make sure you don’t have to leave for water or the rest room during the first act because you will not be allowed back until intermission. In addition, the program contains information and a resource guide on Learning Center for Deaf. This show is not recommended for youngsters due to the intense nature of the topic, as well as the many swear words the characters use.

        SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of TRIBES, the hit London and Off-Broadway drama for five weeks, from September 13 through October 12, in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

There will be two ASL-interpreted performances: Sunday, October 6 at 7PM and Friday, October 11 at 8PM.

There are a student rush ($14 with valid college ID) tickets one hour before curtain, subject to availability, at the box-office only, Ticket prices range from $25-$60 with discounts for students, seniors, and persons age 25 and under. For tickets or more information, the public is invited to call 617.933.8600 or visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com.

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