Tribes, now playing at Tacoma Arts Live Theatre on the Square offers a play about communication, which in today’s world is a miracle in itself.
Butterflies have a life cycle that involve stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. What we have in Tribes, is a young deaf woman living in a family that worships words . . . spoken words. She and her family never learned sign language. It’s not until Billy falls in love with Sylvia, another deaf person, that she is able to expand her horizons, share communication freely, spread her wings . . . and have a chance at flying.
Tribes was ready to open when COVID shut down the performance over a year ago. It now has a chance to capture an audience. The play was written in 2012 by Nina Raine, a British author. Tribes was meant to explore the rich history of the deaf community. It both hits and misses the mark.
When the play begins, the set, the ASL (American Sign Language) signers and the characters are presented almost in black and white . . . but life gives us more color to share and enjoy.
Most productions of the play I’ve read about show a family dining/living room. In this version we have that homeyness in the middle of the stage, but on either side, we have towering, looming rows of shelves containing books and God knows what else. During set changes, sometimes the shelves are drawn together forming a backdrop, which pushes the drama on stage closer to the audience. The shelves take up two thirds of the stage and command more attention than the family’s living space, giving the effect of squeezing and compressing the actual living space as it shows the predominance of the written and spoken word in this family’s dialogs. Lex Marcos was the set designer.
The production points out that a common method of communication defines the group. Male and female (young and old) have known communication differences based on how each “reads” and reacts to cues. This also applies to one culture and a different culture – caused by nationality, age, sexual preference, education, race, county of origin, or any other number of differences. The same goes for a parent and a child, a person with authority and one without. Parents have the power to control many facets of their child’s life: what they eat, wear, watch on TV, which sports and instruments played, bedtimes, allowances, classes taken, future education plans, and sometimes how they feel as well as ways to communicate. All these differentials define a given culture and all are not readily accepted or even “read” the same by other entities.
The fact that the parents have decided, either tacitly or implicitly, that Billy, although deaf, will not learn sign language has a gigantic impact on her perception of herself and her power to control her life. She has been deprived of another language and another culture that may be better suited to her than the status quo. Billy feels outside the family, the tribe, and the lack of power over her circumstances could deny her real fulfillment. Her resilience in finding her own tribe, her own community, shows her the control she can exert in her life.
In this version of the play, son Billy, played by Michelle Mary Schaefer, has been changed to daughter Billy, which implies sexual ambiguity that is never addressed in the text of the play. This may underscore the motif that there are important aspects of life that are never addressed in language, spoken or signed; or it may just cause confusion mixed with a little discomfort and turmoil.
The awakening of Billy and her awareness of herself and her place in the family, changes the color of the situation and the feel of how the family reacts. Director Louis Hobson notes, “We started with a color conscious casting process and allowed for the reexamining of Billy’s gender.”
What’s really interesting is the use of sign language interpreters Jacque Larant and Christine Osness. They constantly work behind or beside the actors. They have much more power when they perform in the front of the house as opposed to the back of the house. The only problem I saw was when the actors were positioned down stage and the interpreters were positioned at the far sides. I was forced to watch one or the other, and since I was sitting further left of center section, I frequently chose to watch the actors straight on, which means I lost some of the feeling of the moment.
As the closeness between Billy and her friend expands, so does her place in the family and her position in life.
Naarah McDonald, in charge of costume design, gave us glimpses of life beyond black and white. When Mari Nelson (the mother) appeared in a simple and yet beautiful kimono, I made note that my wedding anniversary was only weeks away. The wine colored shirt gave a touch of reality to the father of this tribe, played by Anders Bolang (the father). The head of the household became a cross between s Russian Cossack and Captain Kirk. It didn’t change his outlook, but it was a simple first step towards a new reality.
Filling out the household is son Daniel (played by Jonathan Swindle) and daughter Ruth (played by Isabel Bennett). Both have issues. The actors play the other parts well. We want the characters to succeed and take more important positions in the family. The actors have extensive acting credits.
By the end of the play, we see a slightly different family. All is not better, but then . . . that’s life.
I missed not having a program, it was available via phone, but only five of the six actors were mentioned. I like programs, especially when I can read the reasons why a play was chosen and what the director had in mind.
David Fischer and Bret Carr were Co-producers. Peg and I along with my cousin Lavinia Hart have enjoyed every production we’ve seen at Tacoma Arts Live. Beyond enjoyment, however, is the desire to discuss the plays themselves.
The production runs through November 21st at Theatre on the Square. Tickets are available for purchase online – tacomaartslive.org/events/calendar/eventdetail/1778/-/tribes