Nina Raine’s drama Tribes is the last show in the U of Alberta Studio Theatre season. It was directed by Amanda Bergen as part of her MFA Directing studies, and design was by MFA Design student Robyn Ayles.
The play explores some of the difficulties and felicities occurring with overlaps between Deaf culture, hearing culture, and the idiosyncratic culture that’s built up within a family. In the first scene, the family is gathered around a dining table, probably at breakfast time. The parents, played by Ashley Wright and Judy Ferran, have three young-adult children living at home (Zoe Glassman, Mathew Hulshof, and Connor Yuzwenko-Martin). Conversations are chaotic, loud, acrimonious, repetitive, and obscene. After a while my attention was drawn to the one person on stage who wasn’t engaged in argument but mostly sitting upstage eating his cereal, Connor Yuzwenko-Martin’s Billy. Nobody else in the family seems to expect him to be part of the conversations. A few side comments and responses indicate that he is deaf, and mostly ignored even when he tries to participate. Other family members all seem self-absorbed, troubled, and wrapped up in their own creative projects.
Billy’s life begins to change when he meets Sylvia (Bobbi Goddard), a young woman who was raised hearing in Deaf culture but is now going deaf herself. The two of them do not communicate easily either because Billy speaks with difficulty and does not sign and Sylvia doesn’t lip-read well. However, they are drawn to each other. Sylvia motivates Billy to learn ASL, suggests a job which would reward his skilled lip-reading, and challenges his family’s hostility towards Deaf community while opening up about the problems she sees there. In one of the most telling exchanges, the father Christopher asks her condescendingly what Deaf culture is like, and when she replies “hierarchical” it’s clear that he has no idea how to respond to a perceptive and critical answer.
I did not feel as if the play told me anything I didn’t already know about the issues around contemporary Deaf, deafened, and hearing-world interactions or about ASL linguistics, but it illustrated them in a compassionate thought-provoking way. But it was not just the story of Billy encountering a world where he could communicate easily and Sylvia having to cope with losing her hearing. The issues around Billy’s job interpreting video-recordings for court testimony, standards of proof and ability to fill in stories by assumptions, were fascinating. Various balances in family expectations and culture are upset when the former “mascot” of the family develops outside life and confronts his parents and siblings. None of them ever listens to each other. They always counted Billy as the sympathetic listener, but it didn’t seem to matter whether he could understand them. Another level of irony is that the father is shown studying conversational Chinese language, but has never tried to learn sign. The story ends with a small sentimental gesture of outreach, but problems are mostly left unsolved in a credible way.
I am hearing and I do not sign. I had a good enough understanding of what was taking place on the stage with the help of surtitling for some of the Sign conversations and some of Billy’s speech, as well as his postures and facial expressions and the responses of the other characters. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed about not understanding more of what he was saying with his voice, but I felt like that was appropriate. It also reminded me of the first time I saw Mat Hulshof on stage, when he was playing a disabled teenager with speech difficulties in Kill Me Now. The inclusion of Bobbi Goddard’s character Sylvia, someone who could speak clearly and also discuss nuances of Deaf and deafened life, enriched the story and also made it logistically easier for a hearing person to be engaged. I found Goddard’s performance particularly moving, alluding to the flaws in the community she’d been raised in but still feeling protective of them, and especially in the scene where she struggles with losing the last bits of hearing her own voice. At first I thought her character might be a device like William Hurt’s in Children of a Lesser god or Donald Wood’s character in the Steven Biko biopic Cry Freedom, a dominant-culture ally who is easier to identify with than the uncomfortable-making minority character, but I changed my mind, as I came to see that her conflicts were as significant a part of the story as Billy’s.
The performance I saw was interpreted by four ASL interpreters, who moved smoothly to the sides of the stage as needed, each interpreting for one of the characters in the conversation. Although I did not understand what they were saying, I could easily tell who was speaking for which character because of their gestures and attitudes.
Tribes continues at the Timms Centre until Saturday May 23rd, with tickets at Tix on the Square. The Saturday closing performance will have live ASL interpretation, as did an earlier one.