“Tribes” is playing until Oct. 5 at Capital Stage, 2215 J St. Tickets range from $22-34 depending on what day you go and where you sit, though the theater is small enough that no seat is truly bad. Showings are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at capstage.org or by calling 916-995-5464.
When my younger brother was 1 year old and developed a speech impediment, my parents decided to get us tested for hearing loss. We both turned up positive for bilateral congenital mild-to-moderate hearing loss.
In other words, while we were not deaf, we definitely had some hearing problems.
Since we were diagnosed at such a young age (I was 4), we had the chance to get hearing aids and develop (mostly) normally. Neither of us learned sign language, nor did our parents or any other family members.
While I would not say that my hearing loss is a defining part of my life, it’s definitely there. Every so often, I have to ask for subtitles on films or similar aids. However, I have never been part of a “deaf community.”
The play “Tribes,” by Nina Raine, currently playing at Capital Stage on J Street, addresses the issues of communication for deaf people, of sign language versus oral speech. Of course, I had to see it.
“Tribes” is about Billy (played by Stephen Drabicki), born deaf as the third child in a hearing family. When Billy meets Sylvia (Brittni Barger), a hearing child of deaf parents who is gradually going deaf, and begins to learn sign language, everything changes.
I have never seen a bad play at Capital Stage, so I was expecting something pithy and thought-provoking, but “Tribes” exceeded my expectations in sheer emotional impact. It captured the feelings of exclusion and belonging, love and loss, intimacy and disconnection.
In the first scene, Billy’s siblings and parents bicker loudly and dysfunctionally, while Billy sits, unaffected, eating his dinner. His family is a tribe—an infighting, bitter one, but a tribe nonetheless—from which Billy is excluded.
“What happened? What was funny?” he asks, but his family doesn’t bother explaining. While sheltered from the noise and trauma of arguments, he is also excluded from his own tribe.
As the mother, Beth (Jamie Jones), puts it, “Why can’t you move a step in this house without an argument starting?”
“Because we love each other,” her husband (Lol Levy) replies.
“Like a straitjacket,” their daughter Ruth (Elizabeth Holzman) chimes in.
Meanwhile, Sylvia has her own struggle: she doesn’t want to become deaf.
“You’re lucky,” she says to Billy. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
An interesting feature of the play is the use of sign language: throughout the production; translations of what the characters sign are projected on the back wall of the stage. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the projected translations are used to great emotional effect.
Although the play definitely has its humorous bits, the overall effect is gripping and poignant.
And as a member of the hard-of-hearing and deaf community who has never been a part of those groups, I was especially touched.