I am fascinated with Deaf Culture; the communication, the people, the art, everything that makes this mostly hidden world that is under our noses thrive. And although I enjoy anything that is 100% deaf, I truly love when the hearing world and the deaf world conjoin. Tribes by Nina Raine is one of those ways. I am fortunate enough to have seen two performances of this show in two cities. The first was done by SpeakEasy at the BCA, the second was at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
The show follows the path of a family. This is a highly intellectual, “creative” family that has issues. Whether novelist, opera singer, thesis writer, every member has its talent apart from Billy, a deaf boy. He is by no means left out though, quite the opposite, he’s loved by all the family and is treated as nothing special, nothing deaf. But when Billy is introduced to ASL through a woman who is losing her hearing, his world opens up and ties with the family begin to loosen.
I’m a big fan of this show. It’s well written, hugely informative, and struggles with existing issues. The play both marvels and criticizes the deaf community and expresses controversial opinions on all ends. What I think should be addressed is not the play’s content, but it’s accessibility. As expected audience members (as they always should be considered) all the elements of the show should allow for total viewing pleasure for everyone. When I saw the SpeakEasy production, it was a tennis court set up and I’m glad to say there were only a few moments of impaired visibility. However, I have the advantage of having a Deaf ASL teacher that saw the show, and I asked his opinion. He expressed he enjoyed the show, however wasn’t pleased at the interpreters’ placement. The width of the stage was as such that the action of the play was usually at least a good 90 degrees away from the interpreter. He complained it was frustrating having to continuously swivel his neck in order to know what the characters were saying.
The Steppenwolf production was even more surprising. The design was a realistic house with two floors, the second of which consisted of a tight single bedroom. However the only reason I know this is because I saw it while walking down the aisle. As soon as I sat down in the 4th row, the entirety of the room was obscured. I have no idea if any action went on up there. What’s more if that simple conversations between two people were often cut off, with one person’s back directly facing a portion of the audience. Scotty Zacher of Chicago Theatre Beat had a similar experience and theorizes the visual obstruction might be intentional:
“At first I thought I was just in a bad seat, but as Pendleton’s blocking kept actors statically blocking each other from view for long periods of time, it occurred to me that it may have been Pendleton’s intention. Even Walt Spangler’ sets seem deliberately designed to obscure visibility. It struck me that audiences sitting house right would have an impaired view of the crucial action at the dinner table at stage right. I was unable to see the action staged on stage left (of which thankfully there wasn’t much). Spangler’s also had a second story bedroom but I can’t tell you if any actors ever went up there. If Pendleton intentionally staged the play to obscure visibility in order to force us to empathize with Billy – to force us to understand the importance of the non-verbal as well as the verbal in communication – he took the idea way too far. If it was unintentional, it’s simply bad direction.”
Before we comment, criticize, and improve content, we must receive it as clearly as possible. I think this piece of theatre is a large step in bridging the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds, however these and all shows must be tailored for every viewer. We need to invite everyone in, otherwise it remains just a show we see and feel good about because it includes those we feel sorry for. It’s our thought charity for the day and no actual headway is made. Accessibility is key.