Tuesday, August 28, 2012


The tribes of Nina Raine’s play of the same name are Jews, intellectuals, those who are born deaf, those who are going deaf, those who sign and those who reads lips and for that matter those who do both. Christopher (Jeff Still) is a sixty year old writer who would definitely to quote Woody Allen “never join a club that would have him as a member.” For starters he’s an elitist who’s repudiated his membership in the club of Jews who emanate from the North of England. He’s the resident intellectual shock jock of Raine’s play, who calls the deaf the “muslims of the handicapped world.” His son Billy (Russell Harvard), who was born deaf, meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a young woman who is going deaf, and is an advocate of signing. Christopher is opposed to signing and the self-imposed separation that it creates. Christopher is an assimilationist both in his attitude towards Judaism and to handicaps, self-imposed or otherwise.  He’s wary of the meeting of the minds that occurs when people are united by virtue of their frailties. The fact that Sylvia and Billy eventually become separated by their varying states of deafness seems to be a good argument for his point, though the playwright is constantly adding themes and variations based on the subtleties of the conditions she describes. For instance one of the things Sylvia is afraid of losing is her sense of linguistic irony—something which Billy never shared due to his congenital deafness. Tribes is not about deafness. It’s really about language and communication. Christopher’s other son, Daniel (Will Brill) who is stutterer, is writing his dissertation on language, his sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is studying opera (music heard and unheard is another subplot) and Christopher himself is learning Chinese. But the subplot about signing is, in fact, a very controversial issue in the deaf community today, as is evidenced by the conflicts that have plagued Gallaudet University, the world renowned institution geared to the needs of the deaf. As if to underscore the issue Tribes projects sections of dialogue on the walls of the Barrow Street Theater like translations say from a Berliner Ensemble production one might encounter at BAM.  A scene in which the partially deaf Sylvia tries to read the aggressive misanthropy on the lips of the family she’s just been introduced to (which ends with Sylvia playing a piano piece she herself cannot hear) demonstrates the dizzying way in which Raine embellishes the many and often overlapping themes of her play.

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