Tribes makes us privy to the dynamics of a twenty-first-century, secular, Jewish family in a series of fast-paced scenes that leave few holds barred. The parents—middle-class, middle-aged, hyper-verbal intellectuals—are trying to cope with the fact that their three adult children have returned to inhabit the nest.
When I first wrote London friends that I wanted to go to the theater, I was informed that there was nothing good on. Then, a friend of a friend suggested Tribes by Nina Raine at the Royal Court. That small, comfortable, and welcoming theater in Sloane Square was, for a time, the British partner of Joe Papp’s Public Theater in New York and known for presenting young playwrights and provocative work, so I was unsurprised to see a young, excited audience and to learn that Nina Raine was a young playwright and that Tribes was her second play.
Like Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution that I saw at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer and is now being staged (through November 28) at Playwrights Horzions in New York, Tribes makes us privy to the dynamics of a twenty-first-century, secular, Jewish family in a series of fast-paced scenes that leave few holds barred. The parents—middle-class, middle-aged, hyper-verbal intellectuals ready to become empty-nesters—are instead trying to cope with the fact that their three adult children have returned to inhabit the nest. One of them, Billy, has been deaf from birth, and it is his return that throws the tribe into a sequence of dramatic confrontations.
Billy has fallen in love with an outsider, a young woman who is herself in the process of going completely deaf, and this family play is also a debate on tribes, minorities and majorities, insiders and outsiders, the cost/benefits of adaptation, segregation and integration. It is an ambitious play that takes on a very large intellectual and cultural agenda and yet exerts a strong emotional power enhanced by innovative use of sound and music. It is also one of the few plays I have ever seen that integrates signing as well as utilizing subtitles for sign language that are projected on the large backdrop—a black and white photograph of an enormous and tangled tree that stands as a symbol of family.
On the Royal Court’s blog the playwright explains
“I first had the idea of writing Tribes when I watched a documentary about a deaf couple. The woman was pregnant. They wanted their baby to be deaf. I was struck by the thought that this was actually what many people feel, deaf or otherwise.Parents take great pleasure in witnessing the qualities they have managed to pass on to their children. Not only a set of genes. A set of values, beliefs . . .
I learnt some sign language. I found it immensely tiring. . . . I realized how much we express our personality through the way we speak. I didn’t like having to change my personality. And sign has a different grammar. I felt stupid, slow, uncomprehending. Was this what it might be like to be a deaf person trying to follow a rapid spoken conversation? But I was also envious. I loved the way sign looked when used by those fluent in it. It could be beautiful. Wouldn’t it be great to be a ‘virtuoso’ in sign? They must exist, like poets or politicians in the hearing world . . .
Finally, I thought about my own family. Full of its own eccentricities, rules, in-jokes and punishments. What if someone in my (hearing, garrulous) family had been born deaf?”
The Royal Court production was brilliant as they say here. I found the cast excellent, the direction crisp, the set smartly lean, paring down the visuals to that family tree and the kitchen table, allowing us to focus on a few key props and, above all, language and sound.
In case anyone tells you that there’s nothing good to see in London at the moment, send them to the Royal Court.
Helen Epstein has written a biography of Joe Papp. Her profiles of art historian Meyer Schapiro and her athlete father Kurt Epstein, who competed in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, can be downloaded from the Kindle store here.