Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: Tribes

The North American premiere of invigorating new play about the limitations and liberations of language

Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Mare Winningham, Jeff Perry and Russell Harvard. Photo: Gregory Costanzo.

Communication is a tricky thing, but its methods and meanings are never more delicate and sinuous than when familial. In Nina Raine’s incisive, Olivier Award-nominated Tribes, language universally excludes rather than unifies, acting as the common divider — not denominator.

All families communicate differently. In some, much goes unspoken, while in others, like Billy’s, everything is said, but nothing is really heard. Tribes shows language as hierarchical: Billy, the deaf son in a hearing family that is verbose verging on virulent, hears everything, but has no voice (literally and figuratively). He’s surrounded by a bunch of overblown egos: a bullheaded and grandiose father (Jeff Perry) who would rather learn Chinese than Sign; a knowing, but oblivious mother (Mare Winningham) more intent on crafting a detective story than a relationship with her son; an overbearing, but emotionally dependent brother (Will Brill) who decries meaning in words, but uses them without reticence, and a spacey sister (Gayle Rankin) who, out of frustration, substitutes music for the words and emotions that she cannot articulate.

It’s not until Billy falls in love with a girl going deaf (Susan Pourfar) that he’s liberated by her ability to sign — his family refused to learn, forcing him to master lip-reading, because they didn’t want his handicap to seem, well, like a handicap. But even as Billy (Russell Harvard, a deaf actor known largely for his part in There Will Be Blood) surges with pent-up resentment, disavowing his family until they learn to sign, he embraces his new autonomy within the deaf community, while Sylvia, deeply grieving for her hearing loss, increasingly resists being defined by her deafness. But in Raine’s play, language determines one’s place not only in society but in the home, and rejecting one form means taking on a whole new identity — and a new tribe.

Raine, with the aid of Daniel Kluger’s intuitive sound design (including a cheekily inserted version of The Jungle Book’s “I Wanna Be Like You”) and Jeff Sugg’s (Chinglish) subtle, poetic projections (supertitles for the sign language appear in various sizes and fonts throughout the playing space) explores both the multiplicities of communication as well as the collisions between its diverse forms. Her insights, like David Cromer’s direction and the performances of the superb cast, are sharp and quick: there’s the vast emptiness of words, music’s inexplicable emotiveness, the palpability of silence, the ceaselessly overlapping chatter of a self-important family converging into a dull roar for the hearing impaired. Imperfect as it is — in her attempt to show the family as a flawed unit, burdens her characters with too many unresolved/explained problems and the final, sentimental scene of reconciliation comes off as forced — Tribes is quick-witted and provocative in the questions it asks about language (but cleverly eludes answering in black and white terms), and Raine’s is a refreshing, vibrant voice with quite a bit to say. Thankfully though, unlike Billy’s family, she understands that over-articulation is another form of disability.

Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Opens March 4 – June 3, 2012

2 comments on “Theatre Review: Tribes

  1. Joy Bieder
    March 18, 2012

    Beautifully written and executed! I am a teacher of the visually impaired and can relate to the correlation between the “hierarchy” of vision loss and hearing loss and the difficulty people facing the transition from low vision to total blindness have. Sylvia’s comment of needing something that is not deaf left an impression on me.I often think that when I am at events and see the same faces. I started taking sign classes to be able to communicate effectively with one of my students who has a cochlear that does not work. I go with her parents. They are unfortunately not the “norm”. Working in the student’s homes, I can see firsthand how much truth there is to your story.

    I enjoyed the direction in the play, particularly the seating. Barrow St. is an excellent venue choice with a lovely staff. At first I thought, oh I wish I was sitting on the other side facing Billy, but then as the play went on and the characters moved around, it seemed deliberate that I missed some of the facial expressions, etc. much like the characters did. I liked how you incorporated signing with the open captions in the different areas of the room and the sound design giving people the sense of what Billy and Syvia were hearing. The props, lighting, wardrobe, and set design were effective and relative.There was that same bowl of junk in the middle of our table and over the years the chairs (and dishes) seemed to match less and doesn’t every house has some sort of exercise equipment in the corner?
    I got the chance to speak with Russell. I wish I was able to have met each of you and express my thanks for this experience. Thank you. Good luck and enjoy your craft. Isn’t it wonderful to do the work of your heart and soul!

    I have brought the flyers back to class to spread the word. I plan on seeing it again!



    • Julie
      March 18, 2012

      Hi Joy,

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the show as much as I did. To clarify, I’m not actually involved with the production — like you, I’m just an audience member. I’m sure, however, that the team at Barrow Street would love to hear your feedback: It’s always so nice to hear when your work connects with your audience on a deeper level.

      And thanks so much for reading my blog!




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This entry was posted on March 5, 2012 by in Drama, Off-Broadway, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews and tagged , .



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