Inclusion, acceptance, a sense of community; these are all aspects of what it means to be a member of a tribe. Externally established expectations, arbitrary social norms, peer pressure to conform; these are parts of the package too. Nina Raine’s 2010 play Tribes explores both sides of membership; the need and the cost. The act of being defined, or of defining oneself, as a member of a tribe simultaneously defines others as outside it. For every ‘us’ there is a ‘them’.
Set in contemporary England, the play focuses on an intellectual couple and their three adult children; all living at home. The parents; Christopher and Beth, and the two older children are members of the hearing community. The youngest son, Billy, was born deaf.
Their already tumultuous lives are further disrupted when Billy meets Sylvia. The daughter of deaf parents, Sylvia is losing her hearing as her brother did before her. She, her family, and her friends in the deaf community, of which she is an active member, all use sign language.
Christopher and Beth decided not to learn nor teach Billy to sign because they felt it was better to treat him as if his deafness did not exist; despite knowing that their son could not fully inhabit their world of argument and music. According to Christopher; “Making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end”. Christopher also fears that sign language lacks nuance and abstraction and would, ultimately, limit his youngest son’s ability to express himself.
Christopher, Beth and their family are obsessed with, and overwhelmed by communication in all its forms. Christopher is an academic for whom criticism is both a vocation and an avocation. He takes no pains to spare his family. In his spare time he is learning another language from recordings. Beth referees the family conflicts and is writing a novel.
Older son, Daniel, has moved back home after a failed relationship. He is unemployed and struggling with his thesis on the way language fails to determine meaning. He is bright but fraught with insecurities. He stammers and is tormented by the critical voices he hears inside his head.
Daughter Ruth hasn’t met the right man yet. She aspires to sing opera but so far has been able to sing only in church and the pub.
Billy’s lip-reading skills are exceptional but he is often unable to keep up with the avalanche of words pouring over the dining table. His parents and siblings rarely take the time to explain the discussion to him so he doesn’t participate. He is simultaneously included in and excluded from the family’s nearly constant debate. He has learned to use his intuition and imagination to augment his lip-reading skills to fill in the blanks where they exist. This is a habit that will bring him to grief later in the play.
It becomes clear that all three children are challenged. Billy’s deafness is merely the most visible of their disabilities.
Billy and Sylvia are distorted mirror-images of each other. He is a deaf man raised in a hearing home who does not sign. He is unable to connect with others like himself. She is a hearing woman raised in a deaf home who can sign. She communicates easily with the Deaf but is rapidly losing her connection to the hearing world. Also, as a person who is losing her hearing rather than having been born without it, she experiences deafness differently from others who are hearing impaired. Many in the deaf community chose not to see deafness as a disability. As someone who is losing touch with the world of sound she has always known, she grieves the loss and this makes her somewhat of an outsider.
Sylvia’s influence on Billy is complex. She loves him and leads him to a world of independence and expression he has not previously experienced. At the same time, she demands he adapt to his deafness in ways his family had never required.
In the world of Tribes, good and bad are relative concepts. Near the end of the opening scene Billy and Daniel are left alone. Daniel turns up the radio as they talk because it drowns out the voices in his head. He needs the sound. It is both his curse and his refuge. The radio creates a buzzing in Billy’s hearing aids that make it difficult for him to focus. He needs the silence.
Act I ends with Sylvia playing the piano. Sharing the music helps her bond with Billy’s family. She plays beautifully. The poignant moment is made achingly beautiful by the knowledge not only that music is a gift she can never share with Billy but by her own awareness that, because of her increasing deafness, every time she plays she experiences the music less fully.
Tribes premiered in London in 2010 where it earned an Olivier Award nomination for Best Play. It opened Off-Broadway in 2012 where it won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. On one level it is a coming-of-age story of a young deaf man finding his independence. On another level it explores the ways families, for better and for worse, share their values. Ultimately the play speaks to the need we all share to feel connected to other people; and the toll that takes. On each of these levels it is compelling theater.