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Welcome to Tribes

by Martha Lavey

Tribes by Nina Raine is a play rife with language. The English language, spoken and written; music; Chinese; sign language; lip-reading; and the very specific dialect of a particular family that is shaped by their history and personalities.
Language is explored in the play both as a means of communication and as a barrier to it. The home of Christopher and Beth is a veritable Tower of Babel. People talk over each other, music obscures conversation, Christopher’s language tapes ride over conversation, Daniel’s speech breaks down into stutter, Ruth sings and is silenced. The language of the family is defined by argument and everyone struggles to be heard. Billy, the youngest of the siblings, is deaf in a family that does not sign, but glories in verbosity.
When Billy meets Sylvia, everything changes. Sylvia is Billy’s entrance into Deaf culture. Raised in a deaf family, Sylvia is a hearing person who is slowly going deaf. She lives in both a hearing and a deaf world, proficient in sign and conversant in speech: a member of both tribes. Her presence alerts Billy to the ways he has never been “heard” in his own family. Where then, does his most authentic tribal identity reside? Family is the fundament of tribal identity—but has that identity stifled his voice? Does his family hear him at all? Or has his identity been assigned him? Do any of them truly hear each other?
I think the play is a remarkable exploration of family, of what it means to be heard, of identity as defined both by “tribal” ties and of individuality within that tribe. And of “disability.” What truly does it mean to be “disabled”? Is it Billy’s deafness? Or might the disability reside more in the family’s inability to hear the authentic voice of each other?
I think the play speaks to all of us. It doesn’t matter that our family might not include a person who is hard of hearing. The huge struggle in every family, it seems to me, is how to balance the cohesion of our “tribe” and the imperative of individuality. We assume that it is family that knows us best. And there is a great deal of sentimentality around the idea that home is where the heart is. But have you ever felt utterly unheard in your family? Have you ever felt that your family is the last place that you can be known? The terrible irony is that both are true. We are deeply and uniquely known in family. We are also, I would suggest, our own great mystery there. So what presides? Tribes might offer us a clue. There is a capacious language of love that hears and sees all and is, ironically—and perfectly, fittingly— utterly silent. It is communicated more by gesture—by action—than any words could provide. It is born by the signs of our connection. It is incredibly simple. It is the gesture of the heart.