Amy Newman and Stephen Drabicki in Tribes at Artists Repertory Theatre.
  • Owen Carey
  • Amy Newman and Stephen Drabicki in Tribes at Artists Repertory Theatre.

At Artist Repertory Theatre's black-box Alder Stage, we’re plopped down into a kitchen with a dysfunctional British family, as its youngest adult son struggles to keep up with the commotion of another day’s bickering: Billy, who is deaf, comes from a hearing family. His parents, Beth (the effervescently hilarious Linda Alper) and Christopher (Michael Mendelson), are overbearing, upper-class intellectuals who have explicitly raised Billy without ever teaching him American Sign Language (ASL), “to be 'normal'—not 'handicapped.'” Billy’s older siblings have moved back home, much to everyone’s chagrin—there’s Dan, a raucously obnoxious, emotionally plagued manipulator writing a thesis (rather appropriately) on the barriers of language; and Ruth, a perpetually single aspiring opera singer. Peaks and valleys of familial tension come and go constantly, with all the insufferable proselytizing of a Philosophy 101 class; meanwhile, Billy is isolated, left to his own devices with books and a hearing aid.

And so it's been, until he meets Sylvia, a young woman who is losing their hearing. As they fall in love and Sylvia teaches Billy ASL, drawing him out of his family’s protective grasp and into the Deaf Community, an unexpected battle of ownership takes place that makes everyone question their own ideas of autonomy, ability, and power.

Tribes is, to say the very least, a complicated but necessarily challenging play. It’s sometimes problematic in that it's about Deaf Culture, written by a British, hearing woman, performed for an American, hearing audience. Blessedly, there are multiple performances at Artists Rep that are fully ASL-interpreted, and I got to see one of those; it was beautiful.

But let’s peel back some layers: ASL and British sign language are remarkably different (both grammatically and contextually), so many script changes had to be made for American actors, audiences, and interpreters. Billy is played by the phenomenal Stephen Drabicki, who bears striking similarity to his character—in real life, he is a hard of hearing actor from a large, hearing family, and he did not truly learn to sign ASL until college. This is Drabicki’s fourth time playing Billy. Sylvia is played by Amy Newman, a captivating Artists Rep regular who is hearing. During the post-show talkback, several audience members noted that they found this casting choice odd; the cast responded by saying that hard-of-hearing actors are difficult to come by, and may not have worked well for the very specific context of Sylvia’s role.

As a hearing person, it was illuminating to attend an ASL-interpreted version of this play. Lit up alongside the actors, the interplay of the interpreters was compelling and hypnotic; they kept astounding pace with the constant, manic arguments of a heavily troubled family. I found my attention darting back and forth from the spotlight to the stage; it was like keeping up with subtitles. I found that being a minority in a mostly Deaf or hard-of-hearing audience gave me the opportunity to sit back and listen, by watching people speak intimately with their hands across a wide theater; to be honest, more strangers engaged and talked with each other at this show than at perhaps any other Portland play I’ve seen.

In its layered and thoughtful production, Tribes closely examines our tendency to categorize cultures and communities outside of our own experience as the unknowable "other." We do this to maintain a comfortable, privileged stasis in a world full of endless, ever-fluctuating hierarchies. Ultimately, Tribes is about these very hierarchies—the harsh tiers of class, the alienation of ableism, the often possessive nature of families (biological or chosen), and the limitations of love. How do we navigate such uncertain waters? Do we let the divisions tear us apart? Or do we extend our hands and seek to understand an unfamiliar language?

Tribes, at Artists Repertory Theater (1516 Alder) has extended its run through March 8, with performances Wed-Sun, 7:30 pm and Sun 2 pm, plus Wed Feb 18 at 11 am, Sat Feb 28 at 2 pm, and Sat March 7 at 2 pm.