Once in my pre-car owning days, I traveled by bus to a meeting. I was the only person there who didn't speak the language. Someone kindly translated into English, but I missed all the quick comments, the witticisms and turns of phrases. My volunteer interpretor gave me summations and I went back to the bus stop for my journey home. Not a lovely way to spend a Sunday.
I would later have the same sort of experience in another country, but the dark night of incomprehension would eventually give way to understanding as my language skills improved. The difference was in a foreign country that is to be expected (although some American ex-pat assertively resist that notion).
Nina Raine's "Tribes," a New York Barrow Street Theatre production now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, is about communication and the boundaries built by limited ability to participate. Set in the present day (in England I surmised although the program doesn't so state), we're thrown into the cacophonous home of an intellectually privileged Jewish family.
The spacious, well-appointed home is tasteful, but cluttered--not only with possessions, but with thoughts and people. The parents, Christopher (Jeff Still) and Beth (Lee Roy Rogers) have three children--all in their young adulthood, but also all still living at home. Christopher is a former academic, apparently concerned with literature and language (but not in the linguistic sense). Beth is writing a novel about a detective suffering a marriage breakdown. The children have less focused on their career objectives. Daughter Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is pursuing operatic singing in pubs and church halls but not on the "X Factor" like the lovely surprise Susan Boyle. Son Daniel (Will Brill) is writing a paper with a thesis that "language doesn't determine meaning."
The set and home is dominated by a large dinner table which is the setting for verbal brawling. Each member trying to overtalk the other. Or maybe it's everyone attempts to get a word in before being slammed down by Christopher. The meal time conversation is loud, aggressive and decidedly not easy on one's digestion. Supportive is something that the family might attempt, but has not the slightest clue how to actually provide it. One family member, Billy (Russell Harvard), can't really interrupt the word battering that goes on during meals because he is deaf.
Christopher and Beth haven't allowed Billy's deafness to define him. Billy doesn't know American Sign Language. He had learned to read lips. Billy is very adept, but he also picks up clues and fills in between what he understands. That is how he has lived and any interpretor knows that might be well and good in most cases, but eventually this linguistic sloppiness will trip you up.
A chance meeting with a woman who signs because she was born into a deaf family changes all these things. Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) leaves her unseen boyfriend and becomes Billy's first girlfriend and his conduit into another culture--the signing deaf community. Sylvia is also becoming deaf and exists in that twilight between hearing and deafness. Neither Billy's family nor Billy and Sylvia's unseen deaf friends can understand her grief over this inevitable loss.
Director David Cromer makes us cringe at the loud, non-stop barrage of words in the first act. I know in some places and cultural enclaves it is the norm to start talking before your partner in conversation has finished, but to many ears, this style of conversation will seem like rude, angry confrontational interruptions. By the second act, when Billy has become militant in his own way and refused to speak except by signing (using Sylvia as his interpretor) the moments of silence will seem like a blessing.
You might bristle when Christopher cloddishly insists on knowing which is better: English or ASL. You wonder why he's learning Mandarin Chinese and yet can't trouble himself to learn ASL or if once he's learned Chinese whether the Chinese will want to talk with him. There's nothing like being a beginner in a language to teach you humility, but one doubts that humility will find Christopher in an accepting mood. He's have to be willing to listen.
I'm not at all clear on why Daniel suffers to painfully and linguistically when Billy takes his stand, but the overall effect is thought-provoking. Moreover, when Billy falters in his promising career due to his guesstimations, are we to blame the culture he was raised in that forced him to guess? No matter. "Tribes" raises some important issues that aren't limited to deaf versus hearing tribes. You just have to be willing to listen.
"Tribes" was commissioned and first presented by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010. The North American premiere was last year at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City (Off-Broadway). The play earned a 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
"Tribes" continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 14 April 2013. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. No public performances 19-22 March (student matinees only). No 6:30 p.m. performance 14 April 2013. $20-$70. For more info visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772 or TDD (213) 680-4017.