'Tribes' and the tyranny of language and listening

Tribes Quote

Family stories are the backbone of the contemporary theatre. And Death of a Salesman, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and August: Osage County constitute central vertebra on the spine of the canon. They all center on families who talk well enough … they just can’t seem to actually communicate with one another.

Nina Raine’s Tribes takes that irony one step further. Her acclaimed play is about a family that really can’t communicate. And the fact that youngest son Billy was born deaf is just part of the problem.

“This is a family that is fraught with love and miscommunication and hierarchies,” said Stephen Weitz, who is directing Tribes for the Theatre Company’s Oct. 9 opening. “I mean, Death of a Salesman is the same family, in some ways, and August: Osage County. But by adding this extra element of deafness as an obstacle to communication, I think Nina Raine has taken the traditional family drama and spun it on its ear a little bit.”

The never-named British family in Tribes has been described as an intensely intellectual bunch of dueling narcissists who use (often profane) words as their weapons of choice. The parents are writers with three adrift children, all in their 20s and all living at home. Daniel is writing a thesis about how “language doesn’t determine meaning.” Ruth is a halfhearted opera wannabe. And while Billy may be deaf, his parents didn’t raise him to be different — and they tell him that.

“They essentially pretend he’s not deaf,” Weitz said. “Certainly there is no malice behind that. I think in their minds, they are doing good by him by raising him to be, quote, ‘normal.’ And in the end, that turns out maybe to have been not the best choice.”

Now Billy has met a girl named Sylvia who grew up with deaf parents and is now losing her own hearing. She knows American Sign Language. He does not. Signals are seriously being crossed all over this play.

Tribes is about how we communicate, and how we don’t communicate,” Weitz said. “And one of the great ironies of this play is that it’s the non-deaf characters who are actually really bad at communication.”

Interpreter Natalie Austin, left, and actor Kate Finch of 'Tribes.' Photo by John Moore.The live theatre was born for the public exchange of ideas, however heightened or artificial. But deafness, of course, makes communication and human connection more difficult, whether on stage or in life. Yet the Tribes playwright, Weitz believes, has taken this obstacle and turned it into a tremendous creative advantage. (Rehearsal photo at right: Interpreter Natalie Austin, left, and actor Kate Finch, who plays Sylvia. Photo by John Moore.)

“This is going to be a visceral experience for people unlike what they normally have at the theatre because they are going to have to be part of the communication exchange,” Weitz said. “This isn’t one of those plays where people can sit back and be passive, because it will fly by.”

That’s where Charlie Miller, the DCPA’s resident multimedia specialist, comes in. Throughout her play, Raine’s script calls for supertitles — projected translations audiences most commonly see as they translate foreign words at the opera. Here, supertitles are used to help the audience understand what the deaf characters are saying. But it’s a tricky and intentionally unreliable device, Miller says.

“Not everything that is signed is translated for the audiences and sometimes the translations take on a life of their own,” Miller said. “So I think it becomes more complex than that in a really good way.”

Photos from the first rehearsal for the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Tribes,’ by Nina Raine. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter.

It’s only fair, after all, that if “hearing” people can use language to obscure and confuse meaning rather than to elucidate — why shouldn’t that tool be available to all of the Tribes characters?

In this family, barriers to communication, real or imagined, might even be seen as a relief or a protection when that family is not asking the tough questions.

“You see that both in the characters who can hear, and in those who can’t,” Weitz said. “These parents have their own marital issues going on. Their other son, Daniel, has mental-illness issues that are not being addressed. The daughter has some self-esteem issues that are not being dealt with. For this family that is so invested in communication and debate, they are not ultimately talking about the central issues of their lives. So in many ways, they are the ones who are cut off from communication, while their deaf son is the one who is learning to communicate fully. That’s the central irony of the play.”

Tribes is one of the first plays in DCPA history that will feature some actors who are hard of hearing. That’s good for the creative team, good for the entire community that is dedicated to issues regarding hearing, and especially good for DCPA audiences, Weitz said.

“I am a big fan of any theatre that makes the audience have to work harder because I feel that theatre is at its most powerful when we are an active participant, and I think this play does that remarkably well,” he said.

But in the end, he believes, Tribes is not that much of a departure from those other classic family stage stories.

“I think people are going to find that underneath that veneer of deafness, the themes and the issues of this play are akin to a lot of plays people have been coming here to see over the years.”

John Moore was theatre critic at The Denver Post for 12 years and was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Tribes: Ticket information
Performances Oct. 9 through Nov. 15
Ricketson Theatre
Performance schedule: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday performances at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m. (No Saturday matinees during preview performances)
ASL interpreted & Audio described performance: 1:30 p.m. Nov. 7
Call 303-893-4100 or
TTY: 303-893-9582
Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at Denvercenter.org.

Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the only authorized online ticket provider for the Denver engagement of ‘Tribes.’

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Tribes:
Go to the official Tribes show page
Tribes: Anytime there is an ‘us,’ there is a ‘them’
Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16
Casting announced for Theatre Company’s fall shows
Theatre Company introduces bold new artwork for 2015-16 season

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