Innovative, engaging, topical, and self-aware, Nina Raine’s award winning second play, Tribes, assiduously explores the central issues of communication and belonging, within not only the deaf community, but also the microcosm of the family unit. These two thematic strands are beautifully woven throughout the intelligent and outrageous dialogue of this quirky family drama.
Billy, a deaf man born to a “conventionally unconventional” hearing family, begins to learn sign language from Sylvia, a woman who was brought up by a deaf family and is now rapidly losing her hearing. As Billy delights in the new-found language and culture of the deaf community, Sylvia mourns the loss of her connection to the hearing world. However, Billy’s growing sense of belonging makes him bitterly aware of how ostracising his family-life has been. Having had to adapt to the hearing environment in which he was raised, he feels resentful of his family refusing to adapt to him. Both Billy and Sylvia struggle’s with the elitism and hierarchy of the tribes they have been born into is brought to the fore over Sylvia’s first dinner with Billy’s strongly opinionated and politically incorrect family.
Indeed, this is where the real drama takes off. Having taught their son to read lips and to speak, Christopher and Beth believe, along with their other two pathologically self-absorbed, live-at-home children, Daniel (an aspiring academic with mild psychosis) and Ruth (a B rate opera singer), that being part of a minority group, such as the deaf community, merely breeds social disadvantage. Specifically, they contend, when it is attached to the stigma of “disability.”
Interestingly, it is not through Billy, but Sylvia, whom the underlying debate concerning the ontology of language is channelled. Indeed, she represents the bridge between these two distinct, and erroneously polarised, tribes, forming not only the center piece of the play, but also the catalyst for change. It is Christopher’s cutting question: “How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it?” which allows Sylvia to showcase the poetic and emotionally resonant potential of sign language through a breath-taking rendition of English poetry. This moment, in addition to Billy’s climactic withdrawal from his family, is where the emotional and intellectual heart of the play lies.
Overall, this is a beautifully written play whose strong character performances carried it through the slightly rushed and over-sentimentalised resolution. Raine’s command of textual, signed, and spoken languages made for not only an inspiring performance, but also a thought-provoking encounter with the real lives of deaf people. A must see!