Community Politics – In the Deaf Community – Reflecting on TRIBES at Studio Theatre

Michael Tolaydo, one of our Associate Artists in Residence last season at Theater J, is part of the ensemble of Tribes over at Studio Theatre. Michael will begin rehearsals with us in Motti Lerner’s The Admission in another 10 days. Very exciting. Michael’s a stalwart veteran of past Motti Lerner plays (Pangs of The Messiah, Benedictus) and other Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival mainstage productions (The Accident, Apples From The Desert, Boged), not to mention is stellar turn in New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.

Our student subscribers took in TRIBES this past Thursday night. It’s an extraordinary show. It deals with internal dynamics both within the family and in the larger deaf community. Eager to hear reflections and connections made in the comments section below.

Blair Bowers, Michael Tolaydo and Nadia Mahdi in Boged: An Enemy of The People, by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez

Blair Bowers, Michael Tolaydo and Nadia Mahdi in Boged: An Enemy of The People, by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez


37 thoughts on “Community Politics – In the Deaf Community – Reflecting on TRIBES at Studio Theatre

  1. I went into Tribes very excited, but during the first five minutes of the play I didn’t think I would like the show. The theater was small with an intimate feel, which I enjoyed, but the show’s opening, full of cursing and a characterized portrayal of a bickering English family, seemed to be trying too hard to win over the audience with cheap laughs. As the play moved on, however, the playwright seemed more comfortable sharing her story with the audience without all of the “gimmicks” used in the beginning of the play.
    That being said, Tribes is definitely my favorite play that we have seen this term so far. I think it explored this theme of identifying with a group based on traits derived since birth in a way that was unconventional but extremely moving. Observing two individuals (Billy and Sylvia) join a community in such different ways put a spin on the topic that we haven’t seen so far in this course. Billy is moving into a group of people who communicate via signing and is feeling less isolated as he expands the network of talking to.
    What really moved me, however, was the sense of isolation that Sylvia was feeling as she was going deaf. I hadn’t considered how the number of people the deaf can communicate with is such a small number. Though they know English, they can’t communicate in an English speaking country. It’s almost as if they move to a foreign land and it’s impossible for them to learn the language. I just felt a deep sense of sadness for her, especially when she sees her boyfriend, Billy, get so excited about the same events that she dreads. I just felt so much sorrow for Sylvia that I haven’t felt for a character in any of the other plays because though she has a community to connect with, she feels like such an outsider, like such a low member on the totem pole. The theme of empathy in the play was one I connected with deeply in this case.

    • I saw the main theme of the play as being the relationship between community and language, so the contrast between the paths of Billy and Sylvia is something that I noticed as well. We see how the loss of language makes Sylvia’s community smaller, while learning another language makes Billy’s community bigger. I felt great sadness for Sylvia too, especially when she explains that going deaf minimizes one’s community by default, through no choice of the individual. Having something outside one’s control make such a big decision about one’s community, relationships, friends, is unfair and frustrating. For Billy, his family made this decision for him. His mom and dad decided that he would not learn to sign while growing up, and therefore he did not form relationships with those in the deaf community, although he was a member by birth. Instead, he was restricted to relationships with his family. So, when he learns to sign, his community expands. At the same time, Sylvia is going deaf, and as she loses her ability to speak clearly and hear others, her community shrinks. So, both characters are beginning to use sign as their main form of communication, but it has very different implications for each.

    • Katie—the way you interpreted the play was similar to the way I perceived it. I was also a little skeptical at the beginning, wondering if the excessive swearing would amount to any humor. But once the plot began to take shape, I found the play to be one of the most touching ones I had ever watched. Sylvia’s isolation broke my heart. I never really considered the differences between being born deaf and becoming deaf until watching “Tribes.” Though some of Sylvia’s actions were selfish, it was difficult to watch her struggles as she lost precious things in life: the ability to communicate freely, and music. Instead, she slowly began to witness her handicap become a reality. Moreover, Billy has his family, however flawed. Sylvia has no siblings and feels distanced from her parents as well.

  2. As someone who took many classes in American Sign Language (ASL) in high school, TRIBES hit me on a personal level. I haven’t signed in years, but this play made me want to sign again. One of the parts that hit me the most was when Billy’s older brother asked Sylvia if you could sign poetry. She demonstrated some beautiful sign poems. That was always one of my favorite parts of ASL – just how expressive you can be with it. In fact, one of the main ways you get across your points in ASL is with facial expressions. For example, the grammatical structure of ASL doesn’t change when you go from a statement to a question. The only thing that changes is making an inquisitive expression with your face.

    I loved TRIBES. It raised poignant questions about community and how we communicate with our loved ones. Billy struggled with getting his family to pay attention to him due to his deafness. His family often couldn’t understand him, and Billy could only lipread if the person was facing him. I thought it was interesting how the playwright introduced Billy’s older brother’s issues to further complicate things. As the play progressed, his communication skills worsened. The voices in his head caused him to misunderstand others, and his stutter muddled his speech. Finally, the brother was able to understand somewhat how Billy felt his entire life.

  3. Tribes is my favorite play that I’ve seen so far in DC. I really enjoyed the ensemble cast as well as the themes present throughout the play, because it was both relatable and complex. It was a story of family dynamics and pressures, and what it means to embrace every part of you.

    One aspect of modern entertainment that I really appreciate is when the medium embraces the fact that life is incredibly flawed. The best relationships are when people find someone who can live with their crazy rather than someone who saves them from it. I thought this was an omnipresent aspect of the play. It reminded me a lot of the film Silver Linings Playbook. The main character’s (Pat) family was the greatest source of conflict in his life. Pat was a lot like Billy. His father doesn’t understand him, much like the way Billy’s father doesn’t grasp what Billy wants. They both pretend like everything is normal, at least in the sense that there is not a lot of questioning from the outside world. Billy’s parents and his siblings were all very aware that they had shortcomings – for better or worse, they all put up with each other’s crazy.

    The father-son dynamic is such a fluid aspect of Tribes. I could tell that he only wanted what he thought was best for Billy, but often parents have a more idealistic outlook than what actually is taking place. They never reached a complete understanding, but it was nice to know that Billy finally got his father to listen. I have to imagine he lost several nights sleep over Billy’s comments at the end.

    Billy’s relationship with his brother Dan was the biggest highlight of the play for me. While it seemed like Billy had always needed his family, by the end it was apparent that Dan is the one who needs Billy. Talking to him was like refuge from the storm that is the rest of his family for Dan. Their sister Ruth is loud and opinionated, and his parents are unsupportive of his future endeavors. He wants Billy to stay because he doesn’t know how to live without him. He is the counterbalance to the crazy. There are people in everyone’s life that they need in order to endure their pain, and sometimes living without them isn’t a current option. As soon as Billy left, Dan began to fall apart mentally. He seemed to have his bouts with the voiced inside of his head under control for the most part, but as soon as Billy moved out, Dan took a turn for the worst. It is a classic case of not knowing you need someone until they are gone. That made the conclusion all the more satisfying when Dan and Billy embraced on the stage, cementing an understanding of their dynamic, and repeating the theme that family is the most important part of life.

  4. Earlier on in the day, I ran into an old friend on the street. I told him that I was really excited because I was going to see, “Tribes,” later that day. He warned me, telling me that he had seen it in New York City off-Broadway, and had hated it. I was skeptical of his review because I had heard such wonderful things about the show. Nonetheless, the performance of “Tribes” in D.C. would have definitely proved my friend wrong. Out of the three plays we have seen thus far, “Tribes” was without a doubt my favorite. I think what I enjoyed most of this performance was the complete realness and truth to it. Every family can relate to this corky English family, who spends more time arguing with each other over pointless things than saying “I love you.” Every family has these moments. The performance of these characters was so genuine that it felt like it wasn’t even a play; rather, the audience was little flies on the wall, watching their lives unfold.

    However, I do have one complaint: the seating. My seat during the play was in the front row, which at any theater I would have been completely excited about. However, at Studio Theater, I felt a little too close to the action. At some points during the show, I felt handicapped by whoever was sitting in the chair closest to me, as they blocked off the other actors. Several moments went by when I missed something because I was staring directly into an actor’s backside instead of watching the sign language or another important part of the story. I do understand why the seating was like this. It did create an intimate feeling, like we were one with the play. I just did not particularly enjoy this “intimacy” all the time.

    Lastly, I would like to mention that Beth, the mother, was my favorite character. She had so many fantastic one-liners that just made me laugh so hard. I saw my own mother within her; a little bit of craziness mixed with a whole lot of compassion. Beth was hilarious, empathetic, and loud- which I loved. “TRIBES” is a must see and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

    • It’s interesting that you had someone tell you they didn’t enjoy the show off-Broadway–I have to wonder if it had to do with the casting. I had some issues with some of the writing in the play; the ending felt too abrupt for me, and there were some other elements that I thought were left hanging a bit too much. However, I was totally won over by every single member of the cast. The performances were so real and so true to life that I was stunned. I think you really have to have the right cast to pull off this show.

      The other thing might have had to do with the seating. Although I can imagine that sitting in the front row was difficult, I don’t think you could pull off this show in too large a space. It was so intimate and personal that it felt to me like it needed a small theater like the one at Studio. Perhaps the off-Broadway version that put off your friend didn’t take this into account.

    • I agree that the seating led to some problems while viewing the play. There were whole scenes that I could not see one or more actor’s faces. Generally, this was more of an annoyance than a problem, but there were a few instances (especially when on of the family members would say some type of inflammatory remark) that I needed to see the actor’s facial expressions to fully understand their response. I agree that the play needs an intimate environment, but the fact that much of it consists of the family sitting around a table leads a portion of the audience in Studio Theatre to have their view blocked by an actor’s back.

  5. As someone who took many classes in American Sign Language (ASL) in high school, TRIBES hit me on a personal level. I haven’t signed in years, but this play made me want to sign again. One of the parts that hit me the most was when Billy’s older brother asked Sylvia if you could sign poetry. She demonstrated some beautiful sign poems. That was always one of my favorite parts of ASL – just how expressive you can be with it. In fact, one of the main ways you get across your points in ASL is with facial expressions. For example, the grammatical structure of ASL doesn’t change when you go from a statement to a question. The only thing that changes is making an inquisitive expression with your face.
    I loved TRIBES. It raised poignant questions about community and how we communicate with our loved ones. Billy struggled with getting his family to pay attention to him due to his deafness. His family often couldn’t understand him, and Billy could only lipread if the person was facing him. I thought it was interesting how the playwright introduced Billy’s older brother’s issues to further complicate things. As the play progressed, his communication skills worsened. The voices in his head caused him to misunderstand others, and his stutter muddled his speech. Finally, the brother was able to understand somewhat how Billy felt his entire life.

    In addition, I wanted to address the title of TRIBES. For a while after seeing the play, I wondered why the playwright chose that title. Clearly a “tribe” can be another word for a “community.” I even had a conversation with one of my roommates about the title, who also attended the play on Thursday night. She reminded me about a line in the play that talked about Billy’s family being its own kind of “tribe,” since it was so dysfunctional that no one else could get in. Clearly, the idea of community was played around with in realms outside of the family dynamic. Billy felt like he was not a part of the Deaf community, or the ASL community, for most of his life. It wasn’t until he met Sylvia, a woman who was going deaf, that he considered opening up to this group of people. Eventually, he learned the value of ASL and of connecting with people you can relate to. He found his own kind of TRIBE. For a while in the second act, his newfound relationship with this community was in conflict with his relationship to his family. However, eventually, he was able to find support in both communities, addressing the idea that many people feel loyalty to more than one group.

    • I find your background with sign language interesting as it gives you a different perspective of the play. It is interesting that you understood how expressive and alive signing could be, just like Sylvia attempted to argue for with Billy’s family. I also thought Sylvia and Daniel’s poetry scene was beautiful and really struck me as a key scene in the dialogue the play created.

      The title of the play also caught my attention. Tribes are communities, granted they are arguably more of a subset of communities. However, the title gives that sense of community and togetherness while also hinting at a sense of pride and exclusivity, which Billy’s family exerted throughout the play up until the end. In addition, your point that Billy addressed the idea of being loyal to more than one community really struck me because I had not thought of it that way. However, it is a perfect description of Billy’s overall experience at the end of the play.

    • That is really awesome that you know how to sign. I also learned sign as part of a community college program that I completed during high school. The urge to practice it again made me realize how expressive sign language really is. I really like how you bring up the idea that community was negotiated outside of the family. This brings me to the exercise that we did in the second day of class . There are so many communities that one can be a part of/ identify with.

  6. The first thing I noticed when I walked into Studio Theater to view “Tribes” was an incredibly stunning set in a small, intimate theater. The set of “Tribes” is a home, with a kitchen at its center, a table, a piano, an overflowing bookshelf, and books piled around on the floor. I was amazing at the texture and realism of the set–it was like looking through a window into someone’s home.

    That same intensely personal realism carried throughout the entire show. It’s hard to point to a standout in the cast, because every single character was striking and real. The family dynamic in Billy’s family is familiar to anyone with siblings, or even a dysfunctional family of any kind. They were funny, coarse, and such an accurate portrayal of how a modern, screwed-up family deals with each other. Although the play was about being deaf versus being able to hear, and the communal effects that has, at a deeper level, it really is about family. It was reflected in everything from the detail of the set to the uncanny dialogue, politically incorrect dinner conversation, and incredibly tense first interaction with a significant other when Sylvia entered the scene.

    The lighting and audio effects added fascinating texture and color to the show, as did the usage of sign language, which was not always translated. The contrast, too, of the brothers, one of whom is deaf and one of whom hears too much in the throes of what seemed to be schizophrenia, set up a tense, difficult dynamic that still felt incredibly relatable. Maybe it’s because of the mental health issues that permeate my own family, but I thought the play did an incredible job of examining the intricacies of a family that is both falling apart and learning how to pull itself back together.

    I was overwhelmed by how real the play was. From the working sink and kettle onstage to the family that felt like they could live next door, I was enthralled by the exploration of language and communication on a family. I look forward to seeing more from this cast, and specifically, I look forward to watching Michael Tolaydo play a different role in The Admission at Theater J. Kudos to the cast for an excellent, heart-wrenching performance.

    • Chloe, I too, enjoyed the reality that “Tribes” portrayed. I was even jealous of their kitchen, as it has a working sink AND a dishwasher, something that my kitchen currently lacks. It is not very common that I identify largely with a play, as it most plays/ shows I see are either unrelated or just so far beyond that even the thought seems impossible. Which is why I suppose I enjoyed “Tribes” so much. Like you, I was captured by the reality of the family from every detail like the bickering to the just needing to be heard

  7. Great comments! I too loved the play. It is the most moving portrayal of what it means to be an outsider that I have ever seen. As an outsider on many levels it touched me deep in my gut.

  8. I have never met anyone who is deaf nor have I met anyone who signs. Watching “Tribes” on Thursday night was truly an eye-opener for someone like me, who has never considered the implications of being part of the deaf community, the ASL community, or the hierarchies that exist within the communities themselves.

    Watching the divisions within and beyond Billy’s family broke my heart. Each character suffers from a sort of brokenness, and consequently performs a series of selfish acts—yet I had trouble getting angry or frustrated at the characters, as their actions are not stemmed from malicious motives. Billy’s father refuses to allow his son to become a part of the deaf community, because he does not want his son to be defined by his handicap. Billy’s mother spends years teaching her son how to speak, and makes genuine yet empty promises of learning how to sign should Billy ever want that of his family. Dan kisses Sylvia as a desperate measure to keep her from taking his little brother away from him. Sylvia leads on Billy, only to later realize that she does not want to be tied down to the very community that she spends all her life trying to escape. And Billy becomes blind to the brokenness of his family once he falls in love with someone who opens him up to an entire new world.

    I loved how the characters were flawed. I loved how, as Garrett mentioned above, it was ultimately Dan that needed Billy and not vice versa, as Dan had his own personal struggles that only became evident when Billy left his life. It was also refreshing to see each actor play just one character, as it allowed the audience to focus on the plot of the play. Though some parts of the play were a little confusing, I appreciated how things come to a full circle in the end, and how ultimately, it is love that prevails and keeps together the imperfect family.

    • I, too, enjoyed how Billy’s family acted in destructive ways that were not malicious but intended to serve either Billy or their relationship with him. The compassionate character, I thought, was Billy’s father, Christopher. He never encouraged Billy to learn sign language or to join the deaf community, something at surface value that seems cruel. His purpose, however, was to make Billy not see his disability as a handicap. He wanted him to be able to interact with people who weren’t deaf as well. Unfortunately, this action just isolated him from both the deaf community and the rest of the population. When his father realizes this is when we see the reason for his disapproval that he is dating a deaf woman and therefore making is community smaller, and his motivations for fighting against learning sign language. Seeing his compassion for his son is when we begin having empathy for him.

    • Michelle — your post really resonated with me. I could not articulate how I felt about Billy’s family quite right when i was thinking about my blog post, but I think you nailed it. The family was so broken but at the same time, no one was out to get anyone — at least not really. While they nagged at each other constantly, it was kind of a broken love. You were able to dislike the actions of some of the characters, but never the characters themselves.

      The Billy-Sylvia relationship was a very interesting plot thread as well. Your points on the deaf community and the couple’s relationship with that group of people are insightful. Just as billy is entering this new world, Sylvia wants to leave it. It must have been easier to be a part of the deaf community when she was still able to go back to the hearing one as well. While some characters are trying to hang onto what’s familiar and comfortable, others are interested in moving on. That’s the source of all of the conflict, and the reason why relationships are ultimately able to take on new dimensions.

  9. I was extremely excited to go watch “Tribes” at a new venue. I found Studio Theater to be a very interesting space, for various reasons. For one, the seating was very intimate. I had the privilege to sit extremely close to where all the “action” was going on. There were both limitations and strengths to this, but I want to focus on what made this a positive experience for me.
    From the kitchen table to all of the books scattered throughout the home, the setting seemed too familiar and literally “close to home”. The intimacy of sitting right in front of the actors made all of the yelling and details extremely vivid. I literally saw almost all of the actors spit as they were arguing, something that I may not have noticed if I were sitting further away. This detail added to the overall affect the play’s message had on me.
    I found the cast to be perfect for the roles in “Tribes”.
    I thought that each member did an incredible job at maintaining face and transmitting the point they wanted to get across. Although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to further engage with the members after the play. I still have some questions about how some of these themes extend beyond the family and into the workplace and education.
    The title of the play resonated with me a lot. At first, I thought it was going to be a pre-colonial play or something to that effect. I can only interpret that the writer intended to hint at the fact that within a “tribe” there is hierarchy and issues related to power (politics). This was clear in how the highly educated family often excluded Billy from fully engaging in the family. The issue of community politics was revisited when Billy decides to be closer to the Deaf community and learn/practice sign language.
    One of the most important takeaways for me was to reflect on our listening. No one ever needs to go through the pain that Billy did in the play. Perhaps, this play asks us to consider how to re-fashion the way we think of family, community and the politics of belonging. Most importantly, the closing scene suggested, at least to me, that love is a language that recognizes no boundaries.

    • I also thought the casting of the play was perfect. At the end of the performance, I too found myself wondering about the actors’ opinions on the play. I would have loved to have a discussion with the cast and director about their experiences with the deaf community and if TRIBES has altered their perspective in any way.

    • I thought the set of this play was very effective! My first though when walking in was “wow!” I felt like I could actually live inside the set and have absolutely everything I need. A kitchen (stocked with actual juice – both orange and pear), a dishwasher, trash can, and an iron that, from the steam, seemed to be fully functional. I don’t know if this was a decision for this play specifically, or if the theatre we went to tends to value flashy realism. I’d like to think it was a decision for this play specifically. This play was so much about family and the intimate details of the family’s life that I think it was important for the audience to feel immersed in a real functioning home.

      I thought the way the seating was arranged was also really interesting. I was curious how the people on the side viewed the play, and how that was different from people in the front (like me). The seating reminded me of seeing Spring Awakening in high school. There were actually some audience members seated on the side of the stage on bleachers, meant to look like students. I always wondered if the people on the side had different opinions of the play because they couldn’t see things as well.

    • Uri, I found your comment on the communal nature of family dynamics as essentially tribal to be quite thought provoking. While watching “Tribes” I felt a power struggle being created between Billy and his father with Billy wishing to gain acceptance by both his inner community of his family and his newfound community of those who were deaf. Unfortunately for Billy, these differences were difficult to reconcile because although Billy wanted to communicate and be a part of both communities, his family was obstinate and decided that they did not wish to learn sign language. After seeing”Tribes”, part of me thought that Billy’s family did not want to learn Sign Language because they felt it was incredibly difficult to learn however – Billy was able to learn sign language in a relatively short amount of time. I then realized that his family may have had reservations about learning a language that Billy was already proficient because it would ceding power to Billy that they could not control. This further allowed me to understand that Billy’s family’s disdain for sign language came from a desire to make Billy fit within the confines of what they deemed to be appropriate action and not necessarily what would be the most helpful actions for his growth and development. In short, his family could be described as highly self-absorbed and intolerant of Billy’s needs and desires.

  10. Once again our Thursday night consisted of watching a portrayal of a community. Witnessing Billy’s assimilation in to the deaf community was heartwarming because it seemed he finally found a home. Growing up, he was forcefully kept from exploring his deaf identity as his family tried to mold him into the hearing community. Sylvia, on the other hand, was trying to escape being identified as deaf and being associated with the same group of people and the same “drama” all the time. I think this motivation is completely rational, as she was so fearful and frustrated with what was to come in her future. TRIBES showed someone wanting to be in a community and someone wanting to exit a community. I think we can all relate to this. There are some communities of which we dream to be a member. Conversely, there are other communities we belong to that perhaps we wish we did not or ones that we are grouped with by default, but do not feel a connection with. The play did a great job of tracing the diverging desires of the two characters while also showing their convergence through their endearing, young love.
    I LOVED the casting of the play. Each actor was perfect for his or her role. Annie Funke (Ruth) was hilarious, especially during her banter with Richard Gallagher (Daniel). It is quite amazing and inspiring that this play features a deaf actor. I imagine it would be very difficult in the preparation and rehearsal process for the director to communicate exactly how he wanted a certain scene be portrayed to the audience when it cannot be conveyed to the actor in words and tone of voice. Congratulations to all the cast, crew and directors of TRIBES on a wonderful production that opened each audience member’s mind, heart, and thoughts to a new community of people.

    • At first, I thought that Annie Funke was the weakest cast member – when all the characters felt natural, it felt like she was ACTING. It was funny, but it did feel like it was playing to an audience. And then I realized – she’s a wannabe opera singer. Of COURSE she’s playing to an audience. And in the very last scenes, the ones that were just emotionally wrenching – that fell away and she felt as natural as the rest of the cast.

      It was really, really impressive.

    • Kelly completely agrees with you that communities are at the center of this play, and I think that it’s interesting to think about it with respect to plays. It is certainly an interesting dynamic that Sylvia has grown up in the deaf community despite not being deaf, and Billy was raised in a hearing community with no connection, barring one other kid in school with whom Billy did not interact, to the deaf community. They meet each other as they are both in the middle of a transition from one to the other. Sylvia opens up the deaf community to Billy, but does not want to go back into it with him. I think it is interesting to dissect the play like this because it makes you think of the play in a different light.

  11. As already mentioned by Kelly and many others, TRIBES again focuses on community – the deaf community, the family community. However, TRIBES is different from other plays that we have seen so far (Yellow Face and Our Suburb) in that a major theme is the importance of language for a community. I focused on this throughout the play.

    The tension between speaking and signing is present from the first act, when we see that Billy’s family did not allow him to learn sign, therefore preventing most communication between him and other members of the deaf community. How can one become part of a community without the ability to communicate with that community? Communication is the basis of relationships, bonds, ideas, trust, emotion, laughter, sharing. Without it, forming community is nearly impossible. For example, we see that as Sylvia goes deaf, she feels isolated from the hearing community, as her only form of communication is signing. On the other hand, as Billy learns sign, he can then find his place within the deaf community.

    So, we see the importance of language through Billy and Sylvia’s struggle. Language is so important, since it is how we communicate, which is how we form relationships and eventually community. Further, this theme is expanded through Billy’s brother, father, and sister, Daniel, Christopher, and Ruth. Daniel is writing his thesis on language and, from what I could tell, he is writing that words don’t convey enough, that they are meaningless. Christopher has also studied language and he believes in the power of words, that they are meaningful, that they are everything, which is why he must struggle so much with his son being deaf. He even says that the reason he did not want to teach him sign is that – “It was out of principle. We didn’t want to make you part of a minority world.” He believes that words are what allow people to be in the majority world. Ruth is a singer, and she first presents the idea of words as expression, as a medium of sharing emotion. Eventually, we see that signing has this same ability, although at first there is tension when Billy’s family assumes that using sign makes one callous, blunt, emotionless. Lastly, there were points in the play when instead of words being spoken, they were projected on the wall, either to interpret sign or as a completely separate sentence. This added to the idea of language, as it can be something that is written and conveyed in that way.

    Overall, language plays a key role in community, and I appreciated how TRIBES showed this. Also, the actors were amazing and perfect for their roles. They helped me relate to each character. The humor was skillful, especially when it involved family bickering, as the actors talked over each other just the right amount, and the language was dynamic, again going back to that theme.

  12. On Thursday night, while I watched the play” Tribes” at Studio Theater, I immediately noticed the differences between Theater J and Studio Theater. Studio Theater’s auditorium was smaller than Theater J’s and I was able to sense more of the action because of my close seating location. Also because of Studio Theater’s size I was able to clearly watch the reactions of those around me to different scenes in the play. Being interspersed throughout the rest of the audience allowed me to see audience members, who were not students, reactions to the play.
    On a personal level I was able to connect with the topic of “ Tribes” because although I am not deaf and have limited experience with members of the deaf community I have a large amount of personal experience both living with a major disability and working with members of various disabled communities. Specifically, I have had a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy since birth and have been very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive network of family and friends who have helped created innovative solutions to increase my ability to function within the frameworks of society and my physical limitations. As one could witness during ”Tribes”, Billy’s family did not support his desire to learn sign language. This was in stark contrast to my experience growing up as my family chose to build entire vacations around searching for the right methodologies to alleviate the constant daily struggles of life with a mild disability. Crisscrossing the country in search of the best physicians therapists and procedures to make my daily life challenges easier to deal with. Unfortunately for Billy however, this was not the case as his parents refused to learn to use sign language, although was very difficult for him to speak. His parents obstinacy, although difficult to watch reminded me of much of my experience working with students with disabilities and their parents, who have felt it was more important to have the children live a similar life to that of their peers than make the sacrifices their children to live the lives that fit their individual needs the best. It would have been a commitment for Billy’s family to learn sign language, however Billy’s ability to communicate with his family and peers would have likely increased.
    Also, it was frustrating to see Billy’s brother Dan’s desire to keep Billy at home overtake his happiness that Billy and Sylvia were dating. This fear of Billy’s potential independence led to Dan’s use of marijuana and kissing Sylvia. Eventually, Billy and Sylvia did part ways, for a different reason. However, Dan’s stated desire to have Billy stay at home eventually turned into jealousy that hurt Billy’s ability to have a meaningful relationship. After this incident, both Billy and Sylvia did not see Dan in the same light and trusted him much less. In fact, Sylvia still was angry at Dan even after she broke up with Billy showing the ill-advised nature of Dan’s decision.

    • Daniel, it’s very interesting to read your unique perspective on this production. I would imagine that it took much less time for you to relate to this play than it took for me. I’m glad, however, to hear that you didn’t experience the same family matters that Billy’s family puts him through.

      The more I think about it, the more I realize that every problem in this play seems to stem from the dad. He clearly causes great stress for Sylvia during and after his interrogation, causing problems for Billy’s relationship. He has a tormenting effect on Dan as well. You said that Billy’s growing independence was the reason for his drug use, but he was smoking well before Sylvia came into the picture. I believe he smoked to find peace away from his father’s constant criticism. But I agree about why Dan kissed Sylvia, it was definitely an attempt to keep Billy close to him. But again, I believe their father is indirectly involved. Since Billy cares about Dan–whereas his father shows little caring at all–it makes sense that Dan would go to such extremes to keep Billy around. If this family had had a more supporting dad, we would have seen happier characters, and a much more boring play.

  13. Prior to seeing Tribes, I had no knowledge of the difference between deaf and Deaf. This play did an outstanding job of not only explaining the intricacies of these terms, but also of exploring how individuals chose (or refuse to choose) to define themselves. A few weeks ago our class discussed to which groups we each feel closest and I explained how my Judaism is one of, if not the most, defining characteristic or group that I associated. While the Deaf and Jewish cultures are not directly comparable, this play did make me think about how and why we choose to be a part of certain groups. Certain groups, such as religion or the Deaf culture, people can choose to enter because it gives them strength or comfort. I also think that individuals seek out for community when their current communities are not providing for a need of theirs whether its religion, a social experience, or in Billy’s case an understanding of deafness. The play seems to make an argument that these groups with which we identify need to be taken in moderation. We cannot completely disregard identifying with a community as the play shows that even though Christopher desires to have his family fight the conventional norms and join groups the dysfunctional family still is a community. On the other hand, obsession with a community can make someone lose track of other parts of his/her life or even resent the community, as seen through Sylvia’s refusal to go Deaf events.
    I also have to add that Michael Tolaydo’s absurdist comedic statements gave the show the light-hearted feeling in the beginning that allowed it to discuss the family’s problems at the end. His comedic success directs the audience towards understanding the family’s problems in a not-so-subtle manner. Therefore, without this element in the show, it would be too serious and the audience would not connect enough with the characters to become invested in seeing the family accept Billy and how he chooses to handle his deafness.

    • Ari, I liked what you mention about the Michael Tolaydo’s comedic statements and overall light-hearted environment that characterized much of the beginning scenes in the show. Like Katie, I was initially annoyed by some of the profanity in and outlandishness of those scenes, and also felt as though they seemed to be trying just a bit too hard. I did not recognize it until reading your post, but I now agree that without those side comments and familiar eccentricities the play’s ultimately very serious commentary on community, family, and identity would likely be overwhelming. In addition, although Tolayado’s commentary originally felt a bit ridiculous and hyperbolized for a play, it is actually a very honest representation. I have family members far more outspoken (believe it or not) than Tolaydo’s character, and although he is not necessarily neutral or entirely likeable, I ultimately felt like he is a very genuine character. .

  14. Without a doubt, Tribes was my favorite performance so far here in D.C. The cast was perfectly hilarious as well as serious. I was taken aback at first during the opening scene. It was vulgar, loud, and shocking. It captured the attention of the audience and jumped right into the dynamic of the family. I loved how the play balanced humor and the gravity of the situation. The two complemented each other as well as did not distract from the opposite.

    Titling the play Tribes was an interesting choice in my opinion. The word carries a connotation of primacy and togetherness. Essentially, it denotes the same meaning as a community. However, the word tribe brings that same sense of unity while also implying something more territorial. Territorial is how I would describe the family in Tribes. They do not like their deaf son mingling with the deaf community and instead brought him up as if he was not deaf. He had not learned to sign and instead was an excellent lip reader and spoke English. Problems arose when Sylvia appears. Her desire to have Billy assimilate into the deaf community and learn to sign sets off the Billy’s family and their territorial side comes into view. It was also interesting to notice how dysfunctional the family became. Daniel, Billy’s brother, had issues that reemerged once Billy left his life. Realizing that he needed Billy more than Billy needed him.

    Lastly, the set at Studio Theatre was perfect for the performance. I thought that the set really tried to include the audience and make it more of a personal experience for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance of Tribes and I’d highly recommend going to see it.

    • I agree with you that that the set at Studio Theatre was a terrific fit for this performance. The set was very operational and it gave the audience the impression that we were part of the experience. I was shocked to see that the outlets and appliances all worked on the set. They actually lit cigarettes versus just pretending to, the influence of the set made the play a lot more personal and relatable. This play is also my personal favorite of the other plays that we watched this semester. Although this play was humorous, serious, abstract, it was also informative. I learned a great deal about the complexities within the the deaf community, the significance of sign language, as well as the different sectors of the language (each country and community has their own version). I can relate to your initial description of the show as “loud, vulgar, and shocking,” I had similar views. Although the show began that way, it had many segments of silence which gave it a dynamic feel. I also would recommend this play to others; but I do wonder what the rest of the audience felt about the abrupt ending.

  15. Last semester, a friend of mine took a class in ASL. I followed his progress with interest – their assignments were interactive and made for really good stories – but it wasn’t until the final exams, when I was recruited as a study buddy, that I really got to hear about Deaf culture. During study breaks I read Wikipedia articles on Deaf poetry and community, and I must say: it intrigued me.

    Tribes, however, made it come alive for me in a way that a Wikipedia page could never do. Part of that was intimate set – the plays we’ve seen so far have had sparse sets, obviously representative of buildings and objects but not actually physically similar, but Tribes had desks and books and working sinks and edible food. Part of it was the acting, which was much less showy and towards-the-audience than other plays we’ve seen – it felt like characters reacting, rather than characters performing. But I think most of it was the quality of the written play itself – it was humorous, it was touching, it was complex, and it was completely absorbing.

    I think the most absorbing part was watching the question of ambiguity play out in real life as it does in language. Christopher kept on asking about ambiguity and assumption in Deaf culture, and at first Sylvia dismissed his criticism. But as the play went on, we began to see Sylvia’s fears that perhaps Deaf culture does lack that level, and then the question of ambiguity is complicated when Billy begins to make things up and presents them as concrete evidence. Life imitating language.

    On the walk home from the theater, some friends and I were discussing how the ending was unclear – it left us wanting to fill in the blanks. Which brought us right back to the play – we WANTED that black-and-white state of concrete answers – the state that was both desired and feared by the characters in the play – and we did not know how how to get there. It made the struggles of the characters in the play come alive, even after the act of watching was over.

  16. I thought Tribes was just a “pretty good” play until the final scene. I think the final scene really struck something in me and made me appreciate the rest of the show. I felt this throughout the play. As the play develops, Nina Raine reveals more and more about how the characters surrounding Billy, their relationships and their issues. As she does this I believe the audience begins to realize the significance of past scenes. This has an incredibly powerful effect. As the storyline develops and, for example Daniel’s voices in his head get louder, you realize what must have been going on for him before the play begins, and also throughout the whole first act. Later on in the play you realize Beth wearing the kimono at Sylvia’s first dinner with the family, what was originally a comedic moment in the play, is really a sign of her troubled relationship with Christopher. I think in retrospect all of these things are obvious, but what makes Tribes a truly excellent play is how Nina Raine hides these important issues in plain sight. For me – maybe because I always felt a little bit behind what is a very fast paced and exciting play – this all culminated in the final scene. In the final scene I think the audience gets to finally witness how much this family truly needs each other, but also how poorly they treat each other.

    Now I’ve been applauding Nina Raine, but a lot of credit is also due to the actors in this play. In order to do this ‘hiding in plain sight effect’ I think you really do need the actors to move at a fast pace, and keep the audience from stopping to think. I think the actors at Studio Theater, in my case at least, really succeeded in doing this. I thoroughly enjoyed Tribes. Not only is it a fast-paced and witty play, but it is deeply moving too.

  17. Expanding on Julie’s comment (she and I were seated next to each other), I found the layout of the theatre itself to have quite an impact on the viewing experience of TRIBES. Julie, Ari and I were seated in the front row on the theatre, just off to the left of the stage. On the one hand, I was so close to the performance that I felt as though I was practically in it; however on the other, the actors and actresses backs were often turned to us or blocking our view of the rest of the cast. This seating arrangement had an impact on me that, until now, had not factored into my theatre-going experience. Typically, the seating arrangement at performances is similar to a movie theatre – viewers are detached from the program and have a full view of the entire show. Though at Studio Theatre, I was practically a cast member! Yes, my vision was blocked and I missed several facial expressions, signs and character interaction throughout the play, but I did feel as though I was right there in the kitchen with the Billy and the rest of his family. My proximity to the stage drew me into the play in an undeniable way that I have never experienced before.

    Being seated next to classmates, we also had the opportunity to discuss the play during the intermission. I noted that I felt as though many themes and messages had been presented in the first Act, but I was somewhat flustered by the fact that I was unable to narrow down or predict what I thought may become the direction of the piece’s central takeaway. Dan, through his thesis, had introduced the notion that “we have words but they are only token—how can you convey a nexus of feelings with words?” In contrast, Billy and Dan’s father argued that human’s are completely unable to express any feelings without words or language, so much so that if you are verbally mute then you are presumably emotionally mute as well. I couldn’t determine which perspective the playwright was taking, but perhaps that was the point. More so than any other play I’ve seen, TRIBES presented a very broad, complex discussion on a somewhat narrow topic: a deaf person’s ability to communicate, have language and express his or her self.

    Like a Disney movie, I typically view theatre expecting to learn a moral lesson or receive one succinct, central message. Though initially befuddled by TRIBES, in reflecting on my viewing experience I have come to appreciate how the piece strayed from my original expectations. I left feeling a little uncertain, conflicted and confused – what was Tribes trying to say? What was that play trying to convey or teach me? In hindsight though, perhaps that was the purpose—to simply provide as fodder to a larger discourse about language, communication and expression instead of presenting one, concrete perspective on the topic.

  18. “Tribes” was by far the most emotional experience I’ve ever had as a theatergoer. I mean that quite literally as this production evoked almost every emotional reaction I could imagine: anger, laughter, sadness, confusion, and everything in between. A great deal of the deal’s first act is riddled with crass humor and stressful family dialogue, but the storyline takes a sharp turn in the second act.

    At this point, the whole atmosphere of the play feels different. The second act is practically filled with intense confrontations involving all of the characters. While all of these interactions deal with different subjects, the problem is the same: someone is leaving an old community and entering a new one. I had a hard time watching Billy’s father attacking Sylvia on sign language until I realized what was going through his head. Billy’s dad felt as though Sylvia was “removing” Billy from his family community and into the Deaf community. His attempt to show how the language Billy uses with his family is better than sign is his way of “proving” to Billy that he shouldn’t leave the life that he has. Similarly, when Dan kisses Sylvia later on, it may have something to do with romantic feelings, but Dan is explicit in stating that he doesn’t want her to “take him away from [him]”. Even when Billy first meets Sylvia—who has a loving boyfriend at the time—still pursues her, inevitably persuading her to leave her current boyfriend for him.

    These actions appear senseless and mean, but they are truly acts of desperation. For Billy, it is worth being a jerk to enter into a new relationship to find refuge from the community who pays little attention to him. For his father, it is worth being rude to his son’s love interest to show that he doesn’t need to leave him. And for Dan, it is worth getting in the way of his brother’s happiness to keep him around for his own sake. They are all afraid of loneliness in this way, and it is for this reason that improper social behavior occurs.
    -Alex Salemi

  19. When going to see the performance Tribes, I didn’t know what to expect. By the end of the play, I was hoping that it wasn’t over yet. The playwright did a prodigious job at putting together a show that incorporated dynamic themes. The play, Tribes, was successful at exploring a family’s life and complications. The cast terrifically displayed the everyday complications within a family’s relationship, which I found relatable and entertaining. The main character, Billy, is a deaf adult that is part of an overwhelming and sometimes obnoxious hearing household. This performance forces its audience to analyze the difficulties faced by the deaf community. Billy was raised in a hearing household; the family never bothered to learn sign, instead they help teach Billy how to talk and lip read. Billy struggled with finding a sense of who he was individually and where he felt most at home. It was exciting to go through the challenges that Billy encountered, his acting skills are superb and I empathized for his character.

    Previous to watching this show, I was unaware of the hierarchal divides that are present within the deaf community. I never sat down to investigate how diverse the deaf community is and it was great to be informed as well as being entertained. The performance began to get more complex when Billy met Sylvia. It was interesting to see their relationship develop throughout the play. Through Billy’s interaction with Sylvia, he learned about a Deaf community that he had never been exposed too. He felt that he could relate and identify with the deaf community after spending more time within it. Majority of his life he was shelter from the larger deaf community, especially because he did not know sign language. After viewing this play, I view sign language as a useful tool in today’s society; it was great to learn about the complexities of sign language and its significance within the deaf community. This performance brought up majority of the criticisms that the deaf community and sign language as a whole experiences. There were even ignorant arguments that were discussed that were disguised with humor. Once Billy began to learn American Sign Language (ASL) he recognized how inconvenient his family had been by not exposing him earlier and by not learning sign language to communicate with him. The play stressed the fact that sign language has verbs, nouns; you can make full sentences, show humor and express emotions.

    I also particularly enjoyed the set of the play. It was a lot nicer than some of the other plays we have seen thus far. It was refreshing to see how transparent and operational the set was; the water was running, the coffee machine made real coffee, the fridge was filled with juice, and the iron got hot when plugged in. In addition, I believe that Sylvia’s character provided a unique dynamic to the play and Billy’s life. She was the complete opposite of Billy, in the fact that she was hearing her whole life, but going deaf now and fluent in sign language. Overall, this was a great play, my only criticism would be that certain segments ended abruptly and I wasn’t “sold” on the ending. I would have enjoyed an alternative ending however; this performance was both informative and entertaining ensemble that I encourage others to watch.

Comments are closed.