By Nina Raine
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
April 11–May 18, 2014
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
When three smart siblings move back home with their opinionated parents, the cacophony of their family hits a new high—even for Billy who’s deaf. Nina Raine’s profound and powerful new play became a hit in London and New York, now renowned director Jonathan Moscone brings it to Berkeley Rep. To fall in love or find a job, to forge an identity apart from your family, to fulfill that longing for somewhere to belong…is it as simple as following the signs? In Tribes, a deaf man learns to find his way in a world where everyone needs to be heard.
Nina Raine · Playwright
Jonathan Moscone · Director
Todd Rosenthal · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Christopher Akerlind · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Joan Osato · Video Design
Julie McCormick · Dramaturg
Amy Potozkin, CSA · Casting Director
Alaine Alldaffer, CSA · Casting Director
Anthony Natale · ASL Consultant
Craig Fogel · ASL Interpreter
Karen Szpaller · Stage Manager
Jac Cook · ASL Sign Master
Sherry Hicks · ASL Performance Interpreter
Kendra Keller · ASL Performance Interpreter
Michael Velez · ASL Performance Interpreter
Jacob Harvey · Assistant Director
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Anita Carey · Beth
James Caverly · Billy
Dan Clegg · Daniel
Nell Geisslinger · Sylvia
Elizabeth Morton · Ruth
Paul Whitworth · Christopher
“Sometimes it’s as hard to keep up with what’s being said as what’s being signed in Nina Raine’s Tribes, the international hit that opened Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That’s part of the point of Raine’s funny, emotionally fraught play. Communication is a messy business at best, sometimes even more so within tribes than between them…One tribe is defined by deafness, another by academia and others simply by family. Loyalties are fierce and boundaries guarded, but less distinct than they might appear. Her central protagonist, Billy, inhabits all three tribes with varying degrees of ease in a brilliantly articulated performance by James Caverly…Caverly, a National Theatre of the Deaf actor who’s played Billy in Boston and Washington, D.C., provides a solid foundation for the story and Raine’s evocative themes. As the performers probe the ways in which we pretend to ‘hear’ less—and more—than we do, the differences between what can be expressed in speech and signs, or levels of empathetic deafness, Tribes grows more intellectually and emotionally compelling.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“If Act I is filled with tremendous humor and horribly cruel conversations that manage also to be funny, then Act II is where the comic cover is lifted and the underlying bugs are unleashed…Director Jonathan Moscone instinctively (and adeptly) steers toward the heart of this family drama. The play may be about finding one’s people, one’s tribe, but Moscone never forgets how the alchemy of human desire, thrown into the cauldron of a family, creates a volatile potion that is the play’s centerpoint.”—SF Weekly
“Immensely pleasurable…Nina Raine’s penetrating new play forces us to hear the world differently…The critically acclaimed domestic drama revolves around a deaf young man reared by a chaotically verbal family. Sensitively directed by Jonathan Moscone, the play both explores how the deaf experience of the world and suggests that all language limits our ability to communicate shades of truth…As a deconstruction of language, Tribes resonates loud and clear.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“What Billy hears and doesn’t hear, says and doesn’t say, is at the heart of the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Tribes. Nina Raine’s provocative and often very funny drama, vibrantly staged by director Jonathan Moscone in its regional premiere, considers what happens when Billy decides to seek a new conversation…In its exploration of what it means to connect, to be heard, to belong, Raines’ drama of speech and silence rings true.”—San Francisco Examiner
“There is not another drama about family, about communication, about the very essence of language like Nina Raine’s Tribes. The 2010 British play now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage is among the funniest, most moving and deeply engaging shows we’re likely to see this year…Words—spoken, signed, whispered or unspoken—and emotions run deep, which is ultimately why Tribes is so powerful and its echoes reverberate long after the final scene.”—Theater Dogs
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I get interviewed fairly frequently. It has nothing to do with my fascinating personality but simply a function of my job. Why do you pick the plays you pick? What’s going on with Berkeley Rep? How would you define the work and what does it mean? That sort of thing. But frequently these conversations reflect back on my worldview and lead to the inevitable stumper: who are you, Tony Taccone? My shrink is always asking me the same thing. The answer is fantastically elusive and, in the case of my shrink, very expensive.
Maybe the best way to address the question is to ask: what tribe do I belong to? What tribe do I wish I belonged to and which one(s) have I rejected? That seems to provide a framework to understand the choices I’ve made. It not only tells the story of where I came from but where I am now and where I hope to be going. It’s a question we all share and carry throughout our entire lives, the primary way we inherit, create, and re-create our identities. And it’s the central question posed by tonight’s play. As seen through the provocative lens of a young man who is deaf, his loving if slightly crazed family, and his budding relationship with a woman who is losing her hearing, Tribes is ultimately about identity and belonging. About how we change and the cost of change. About never really knowing who we are because who we are is always changing.
But the great gift of the theatre is that it provides a miraculous window to look at our “selves” through the experience of other people. And more improbably, to feel ourselves through characters whose experience may be vastly different from our own. In the hands of talented artists, we move into an imagined landscape where we don’t know anyone but we recognize everyone. We don’t see ourselves but are suddenly in front of a mirror. We don’t share the same experience but we are surprisingly empathetic.
This is why we make theatre, and, I trust, is the reason so many of you keep coming back. So welcome. We’ve placed you in the large, sure hands of Jon Moscone and his wonderful tribe of creative cohorts. I’m certain they can help us sort out who we are and who we belong to. At least for the moment.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
My nephew called me from Washington, DC last fall. He had just returned home from his neighborhood theatre, having seen a show that he just had to talk about. A few months later, my sister called from Chicago and did the same thing. They had both just seen Nina Raine’s new play Tribes. Of course they wanted to make sure that Berkeley Rep would produce our own version of the play. But what struck me about their calls was the way the play had gotten inside their heads. There was so much to talk about and so much to think about.
There are times when we’re thrilled to originate a play. For instance, it was such an honor and a pleasure to commission, develop, and then produce the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s The House that will not Stand. After its closing performance here, we sent it off to our co-producing partner Yale Repertory Theatre, knowing that Marcus had learned so much about the play from the audiences here in Berkeley. When it gets to Yale, he’ll have a chance to make script changes informed by the responses of our audiences. We are proud to be part of its trajectory.
On the other hand, there is an entirely different pleasure in producing a play, like Tribes, that has already been produced a few times. Nina Raine has seen her play mounted in theatres on two continents now. And this year, theatres across America have included it in their seasons. Working on a play that is not in process is an entirely different kind of joy.
One of the special delights, though, of having a play on our stage that has been seen in London, New York City, Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere is the satisfaction of knowing that we are creating an opportunity for a dialogue that is based not on the limits of geography but on a shared experience across time and space. While you will see Jon Moscone’s take on Tribes, my nephew saw the same play interpreted by another director and other actors. We will argue with each other about the play and about the choices made in each production. But, most importantly, we will be sharing. Every year, a few plays sweep across the country and create—in the spirit of today’s book clubs—a kind of national theatre club. If you have relatives around the country who have seen Tribes, maybe you ought to call them tomorrow and see what they thought.
All this is a way of saying that the stories we tell on our stages are meant to be shared. When you ride home on BART following this performance and hear other people discussing the play, or when we tell a story here that shows up on a stage in Louisville, or when Nina Raine writes a play in London that ends up in Berkeley, we are engaged in a kind of community-making that is based in the power of a good story.
I hope you’ve received your subscription forms for next season already. Tony has lined up a pretty wonderful selection of stories told by an awesome assembly of artists. I hope you’ll call, go online, or write back and subscribe so that you can share in yet another season of great plays.
Navigating the signs: An interview with Anthony Natale
By Karen McKevitt
Anthony Natale is the ASL consultant for Berkeley Rep’s production of Tribes. He has worked as an actor, translator, and consultant on many Deaf West shows and has been seen on the big screen as Cole in Mr. Holland’s Opus and in Jerry Maguire. A couple of weeks before rehearsals began, we conducted a phone interview using Video Relay Service.
What does an ASL consultant do?
In general, an ASL consultant is someone who has extensive experience in ASL translating, transliterating, interpreting, and evaluation skills. For instance, as an ASL consultant in theatre, I review the scripts and visualize the dramatic intent and feeling, and then find places and opportunities where sign language could be used effectively. Some situations could call for more gesture or other ASL-specific techniques in conveying the message.
An ASL consultant also functions as a language and cultural artist, working closely with the director on views associated with Deaf culture. It would of course be my personal perspective, and an overall approach—not just onstage, but offstage as well. This could include consulting with publicity and marketing to ensure the Deaf culture perspective is respected.
That’s how I view my role as an ASL consultant. I have done many exciting projects in the past including Big River, one of my favorites, a mainstream play with deaf and hearing actors that started in Los Angeles, where I also had the pleasure of acting in it.
Specifically, what is your role in Berkeley Rep’s production of Tribes?
A good example of the specific role would be sitting next to director Jonathan Moscone and providing input and answering questions he has about sign language and Deaf culture. If I see something that is happening right now in the Deaf community, I would share that with Jon for him to determine if it fits within his intent. I’ll also work closely with the two actors playing Sylvia and Billy, who of course use sign language.
I’m eager to see what it will be like to work with Nell Geisslinger, the actor playing Sylvia, when we start rehearsals in three weeks. I am sure we can gel quickly and that way she can really take on this role and do great. I was very excited when I heard she immersed herself in sign language training. I know she has a great desire to learn, and that along with her talent could be a winning combination. I will be working one-on-one with her on ASL, sitting down to explore the translation opportunities and even draw signs out of her based on her character, which will ultimately fine-tune sign choices that work best for her. By helping her form character by teaching her about Deaf culture, and providing that focus to Billy and Sylvia alike, I am confident it will get them to really “feel” sign language.
I am also looking forward to working with James Caverly. He has played the part before in other theatres, and I am excited for him to share his experiences with me. From that point of view we would start going through specific lines, give background and expanding perspectives of the role as a deaf person, and how they choose the sign. The signs vary so greatly; they have different levels. There are many nuances and hand shapes that the characters can use. You can almost always tell if someone is a lifelong user by these different nuances, even though you may not know sign language.
It’s also an interesting experience working with deaf actors like James who have the language and can sign—it’s their first language. But the character of Billy is opposite. Billy doesn’t know sign language. He’s never met a deaf person, but then he meets Sylvia and is attracted to her. The deaf actor already has the language, but will have to unlearn the language. That’s where I’ll be watching to make sure that the level of sign language is not so advanced. That’s part of my responsibility: to be sure that comes out in the play and that it stays at that appropriate level.
Nina Raine is a British playwright. British Sign Language differs from American Sign Language. How is that navigated?
There are many different versions of Tribes. The older version of the script that started in England had Sylvia teaching Billy how to use BSL (British Sign Language). BSL is quite different from ASL. When American theatres use ASL, there is a dramaturgical disconnect between actors speaking British accents and actors signing ASL.
How are the two perceived differently when it comes to the stage?
So, I question myself how that will work with signers using ASL while the hearing actors are using British accents. But I think it’s best to match what the audience can relate to. I’ve seen five different productions of Tribes in the United States, and they’ve all used ASL. That’s the precedent. We try to make the play more accessible to a deaf audience.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Maybe I can share my previous experience in show business. Since I first started, I’ve seen huge changes. People now are really accepting of the Deaf community and Deaf language, and ASL is growing quickly and faster than I’ve ever seen in the past. I ask myself, “How can it happen now when it didn’t happen like that before?” Maybe it’s because we’ve started to accept it. Society is becoming more supportive of various peoples, and these communities are very supportive of each other; they are sort of unified. I’m excited to see more and more shows showcasing black actors and other minorities. We’re seeing more and more of that in the deaf show Switched at Birth. I’m happy to see today that people in the industry are more open-minded and inclusive of deaf actors, but at the same time they’re teaching and entertaining people. That’s really nice to see.
Nina Raine: Why I wrote Tribes
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. Even a particular language. The family is a tribe: an infighting tribe but intensely loyal.
Once I started looking around, tribes were everywhere. I went to New York and was fascinated by the orthodox Jews in Williamsburg, who all wear a sort of uniform. They were like an enormous extended family.
And just like some religions can seem completely mad to non-believers, so the rituals and hierarchies of a family can seem nonsensical to an outsider.
I learnt some sign language. I found it immensely tiring. Sign demands that you heighten your facial expressions—‘like’—you stroke your neck downwards and smile beatifically, ‘don’t like’ you stroke your neck upwards and make a face almost as if you are throwing up. I felt like I was being made to assume a personality that didn’t fit me. I realised 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?
All these things went into the play, which took a very long time to write. All I knew was that at the beginning we would be plunged into a family dinner. The first scene was easy to write. I wrote it with no idea of the characters’ names, or of how many siblings there were. But oddly, it is one of the scenes that has hardly changed during the writing of the play. It sat there for a very long time. And then, slowly, I wrote the rest. The crazy family was born fully formed. I just had to work out what happened to them.
Reprinted with permission from The Royal Court Theatre, London.
Part of your tribe
By Aaron Carter
Edited By Jenni Page-White
Ahead of the opening of her play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Tribes scribe Nina Raine found the time to chat with the Director of New Play Development Aaron Carter about language, culture, and community before being whisked away to see the play performed in Croatia.
Aaron Carter: Is the Zagreb production of Tribes being performed in English or…
Nina Raine: No, they’re performing in Croatian.
Do you speak any other languages?
I speak a little bit of Italian, French, and German—just enough to not feel freaked out when you’re in that country. I’ve seen Tribes in other languages before, like in Budapest, and you sort of realize how many swear words there are when you hear it in another language—like: “Oh God, there’s that weird-sounding word again!”
There are some fascinating difficulties they ran into when translating Tribes into Croatian. There’s a moment at the end of the play in which the projected surtitle is simultaneously about two different events. But that kind of ambiguous reference is not possible in Croatian, so they had to cut it.
And so much of Tribes is about the very nature of language—it’s interesting to think about how different translations might affect the way the play is received.
Well, even sign language is different in different countries. American sign is quite different than British sign, even though we share the same language. The bit in the play where Sylvia signs the poem—I was really enamored by the way they did it in London, which was quite poetic, but when I saw it in New York, it wasn’t quite the same. And the woman who was doing the sign said, “Oh, we don’t have to do it this way—that was just my interpretation.” And so, you can say a thought in several different ways in sign just like you can in spoken word.
And the other thing that happens with translation: sometimes a joke won’t work in a different language. You realize that it’s not funny without the sound of the words being funny.
There’s a saying—variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill—that Great Britain and the United States are divided by a common language. Are you struck by any notable differences between the English language productions in London and New York?
Something that is really exhilarating for an English person is that American actors are more willing to go further emotionally. English actors can get there as well—I’m really generalizing—but the production in New York was a bit snottier and scream-ier than the one in London. They really hit the emotional peaks. Comparing David Cromer’s production in New York and Roger Michell’s in London—David went very naturalistic, he immersed the audience in the clutter of that family. And Roger took away everything except for a table and chairs and a chestnut tree in the garden that reminds you of the family tree—it was all very clean and symbolic. David’s was a bit more chaotic, more emotionally high-octane. But I don’t think that either way was like, the one way to do it. They were just extremely different.
It’s tempting to imagine parallels between your family and the family featured in Tribes because your father is poet Craig Raine and your brother Moses is also a playwright. Was the play inspired by your family in any way?
Well, the initial nugget came from a documentary I saw about a deaf couple that came from really different families. The man had never learned sign and he was tremendously relieved to find the Deaf community; she was well-ensconced in the Deaf community and all her family signed. And she was pregnant and they wanted the child to be born deaf. And I thought that was really interesting, because there’s a small selfish part of us that wants to pass on our genes and our special qualities to our children. You want the child to be part of your tribe. For them, that meant their child being deaf. So that got me thinking. And then I met lots of deaf people, and I would scribble down things that they said, and I met someone who was going deaf, and I scribbled more, and slowly these characters started to take shape. And I do have a very noisy, combative, and sort of funny family myself, so they were you know, the place where I put these deaf characters.
What can you tell me about what you’re working on now?
Not much really, because it’s not very formed. You sort of write what you know, so all the characters are in their 30s and having babies. I haven’t had any children yet, but it’s what all my friends are doing so it’s all around me. It’s about that and also the legal system…that’s as far as I’ve got, really!
Yeah, my friends and I are in the “kids are about to start kindergarten” phase. So in a certain way, I feel like I belong to a tribe of young parents. Do you feel like you belong to any particular tribes?
A tribe of writers, I suppose? Actually, you know, these sort of intense friendships that I had when I was younger are now finding their way back into my life. And even though we haven’t spoken in years, our lives have sort of turned out similarly, which is really interesting to me. I wonder, maybe there was something we saw in each other when we were young, and we’re still like that—we’re still that same person? I wonder if that’s a sort of tribe. For instance, I spent a year out in Munich when I was 18, and I met this girl and we got on really well and were pen pals for a bit afterwards. She wrote me a letter about a month or so ago, and I hadn’t heard from her in 17 years. So I asked her, “Do you have any children?” And she said no, and I thought that’s so interesting! Because the majority of people I’m surrounded by now do have children, but not my old, old friends. It’s curious.
There’s a play in there somewhere! In the play, Sylvia describes the Deaf community as a kind of protective tribe. What has the reaction been from the Deaf community to the play?
By and large, the deaf people I’ve met have been thrilled that someone was interested in telling a bit of their story. But of course, the play is quite critical of the Deaf community at some moments. Some of the people who have been critical of the Deaf community to me, they’ve said “No, no, I can’t go on the record as having said that.” It’s tricky.
But, so: positive memory! We did two press nights for the London production—one for the Deaf press and one for the hearing press. And I was so nervous on the night of the Deaf press. I sat in the back row and watched, and in the intermission, they were all just talking away in sign. And at the end of the play, they all clapped in the deaf way—which is to wave your hands—and Jacob Casselden, who played Billy, looked out and saw them all and waved his hands back at them and it was really moving. Because that was his tribe, and they were applauding him.
Reprinted with permission of Steppenwolf Theatre.
A window into the Deaf world
By Julie McCormick
What does it mean to be Deaf? Held to be a limiting disability by some and a rich source of cultural pride for others, there is an important distinction to make between “deaf” and “Deaf.” The word “deaf” with a lowercase “d” refers to the inability to hear, whereas “Deaf” with an uppercase “D” is used to refer to Deaf culture and the Deaf community. There are varying degrees of hearing loss, and many different causes. Deafness ranges along a spectrum, from mild (an ability to hear most speech, but soft sounds only with difficulty or not at all) to profound (an inability to hear any speech and nothing but the loudest sounds). Hearing loss occurs for a variety of reasons and at any stage in life. Though difficult to measure these sorts of things, it is estimated that nearly one in six Americans has some form of hearing loss, and that three out of every 1,000 children are born deaf.
Degree of hearing loss, however, does not directly correspond to degree of “Deafness.” A profoundly deaf individual may have no ties to the Deaf community, whereas someone who has some hearing but was raised by Deaf parents using sign may be considered Deaf. This is because the Deaf community is not an artificial collection of people based on a physical trait, but rather is its own organic and distinct culture, replete with its own native language, institutions, hierarchy, customs, and networks.
Awareness and acceptance of Deaf people have been extremely variable throughout history. In Ancient Greece, they were deemed ineducable; in Dark Ages Christianity, their deafness was thought to be a punishment for their parents’ sins. There were a few communities with a high incidence of deafness—Martha’s Vineyard, for example, had a population in the 18th and 19th centuries that was up to 25 percent deaf, and there is a large Deaf population in Rochester, New York as well. For others, however—the victim of an illness or a deaf child born to hearing parents—the world could be very lonely indeed.
Some argue that the Deaf community did not fully get its start until the beginning of deaf education and the standardization of a gestural form of communication: sign language. The Abbé Charles Michel De L’Épée is credited with creating the first free school for the deaf in France in 1760. He also compiled the gestural signs he learned from the deaf into a standardized system. Many of the signs from his system are still used today in LSF (French Sign Language) and its immediate descendant, ASL (American Sign Language). He founded a number of schools and a shelter in Paris and other parts of France, as well as a teaching program, which allowed others from around the world to learn and teach this manual language. In the early 1800s, American Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet traveled to France to learn more about deaf education from L’Épée’s successor, and met instructor Laurent Clerc. Together, Gallaudet and Clerc returned to the United States and founded the first American School for the Deaf (ASD) in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. ASD is still extant today, teaching students from elementary school through high school. Other sign-based residential schools for the deaf began appearing in the United States, and in 1864, Gallaudet University, the first and only accredited university for the deaf, opened its doors. Its first president was Edward Miner Gallaudet, the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
At the same time, oral education for the deaf was gaining momentum in Western Europe. Educators like Samuel Heinicke (creator of the “German Method” of learning speech) taught their students to lip read and to speak by having them feel the movement of a speaking throat with their hands. At a deaf education convention in Milan in 1880, it was decided that oral language education, and not manual signed language, was the best way to teach the Deaf and integrate them into the hearing world.
Though this remained a popular philosophy for nearly 100 years, many lamented this turn of events as a tragic loss of language and culture that had the potential to alienate the deaf rather than connecting them to a larger community. The residential schools for the deaf that were scattered across the United States had become cultural hotspots, places where sign, stories, and history could be transmitted from one generation to the next. For individuals who had grown up alone, in a totally hearing community, this was a godsend. Many graduates of these programs ended up staying in the area, either as teachers themselves at the school, or simply enjoying the presence of so many other deaf people. Oral-only education disrupted this lineage and fragmented a community which depended on residential schools, social clubs, and organizations.
The methods used by oral education ranged from ineffective to cruel, and in 1964, Congress declared oral deaf education to be a “dismal failure.” It was replaced in the early ‘60s by Total Communication, a theory that combined both manual and oral education. Though there are a number of methods for putting these two modes together, the most common practice is to speak and sign at the same time. In 1975, a law was passed which required schools to have the resources to support deaf students, including access to interpreters and special instruction outside of the classroom. As a result, many deaf students were mainstreamed into public schools. Some saw this as a means for greater integration and access; others were concerned that it would continue to divide Deaf children from their heritage.
There are many different kinds of standard sign that are used around the world. ASL is used in the United States and parts of Canada. It does not derive from spoken English—ASL is a distinct language with its own grammatical structures, syntax, and vocabulary. For example, in spoken English, you might say, “I’m going to the store.” Sentence structure tends to follow a subject, verb, object pattern. In ASL, however, that sentence would be signed as “I” “GO” “STORE” “NOW.”
In order to bridge the gap between ASL and spoken English, many began promoting the use of Manually Coded English (MCE) systems in deaf education and interpretation. The most commonly used MCE system is Signed Exact English (SEE), which is based on spoken English’s structure and grammar. It borrowed many signs and systems from ASL, but generated others and uses invented signs to express modifiers like -ly, -ed, and -ing; these are expressed in ASL by changing facial expression, the speed and intensity of the sign, or repeating a sign multiple times. Signs in ASL that are close in content often share similar hand shapes. Similar signs in SEE, on the other hand, are guided by spoken homonyms. For example, the SEE sign for the verb “to park” has the same hand shape as the place “a park.”
Proponents of SEE argue that it helps sign users to become more comfortable with spoken English; critics point out that it is not as efficient as ASL and can significantly delay communication times, and that it creates a gap between the language that many Deaf (and hearing) children of Deaf parents use at home and the one they may use at school. Most significantly, perhaps, MCE uses a fundamentally different logic based on hearing, whereas ASL and other natural signed languages are guided by visual communication. For this reason, ASL is the language recommended by the National Association of the Deaf as “the optimal tool for deaf children and adults.”
Over the centuries, various technological innovations have made it easier for members of the Deaf community to communicate with each other and to navigate the hearing world, from old-fashioned ear trumpets to hearing aids, to table-top amplifiers, teletypewriters, assisted listening devices, closed-captioned televisions, and most recently and controversially, cochlear implants. Yet as it was poignantly expressed in Sound and Fury, a 1999 documentary film about a Deaf and hearing family’s debate over giving their children cochlear implants, these benefits have the potential to alienate as much as they do to connect.
In this hierarchical, fiercely proud, and occasionally insular community, the lines demarking who belongs and who does not are subtly drawn. Hearing children born of Deaf parents can find themselves in a challenging liminal space—though their first language may be sign (there are many stories of hearing children having to go to speech therapy when they start school, because they are used to communicating solely in sign with their families and family friends) and they have had access to the Deaf world since birth, they can hear, whereas their parents cannot. Similarly, Deaf children born of hearing parents (according to the National Association of the Deaf, this happens 90 percent of the time) may struggle to communicate with and be understood by their families, perhaps not gaining significant access to language until school. Without sign, access to the Deaf world is minimal. Without hearing (even with aids or implants and oral education), it can be difficult to fully integrate with the hearing world. Though there are as many exceptions as there are people, at the heart of it all is the challenge of balancing two worlds that must pay careful attention to fully understand one another.
Sneak peek: Tribes
See and hear the world differently in this preview video of Tribes.
Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone introduces Tribes.
Want to listen to select articles from the program? Play these audio files online—or download and listen to them.
Photos courtesy of mellopix.com
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Our literary department has curated this list of resources about Deaf culture and community.
Deaf culture and community
Cultural and Language Diversity and the Deaf Experience edited by Ila Parasnis
- This book is described as a comprehensive analysis of the Deaf as a culturally and linguistically distinct minority group within American society. The book features three sections, including research on bilingualism and biculturalism, the impact of cultural and language diversity on the deaf experience, and firsthand accounts from Deaf community members.
- This is a thought-provoking article from The Atlantic about the advanced but controversial technology available to the Deaf and hard of hearing—cochlear implants—and how the attitude of healing a “disability” is strongly opposed by the Deaf community.
No Walls of Stone: An Anthology of Literature by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers edited by Jill Jepson
- This selection, featuring poems, short stories, essays, memoirs, and one dramatic text, both captures and interprets the experience of deafness in relation to a variety of subjects.
- Offering a fascinating window into family communication dynamics, this reality show, produced by Marlee Matlin, follows the Firl family of Fremont, California, where teenager Jared is hearing, while both his parents and two of his siblings are deaf.
Through Deaf Eyes (DVD)
- Filmed in association with Gallaudet University, this PBS documentary “explores almost 200 years of Deaf life in America and presents a broad range of perspectives on what it means to be deaf. The film is propelled by the stories of people, both eminent and ordinary, and sheds light on events that have shaped Deaf lives.”
Sign language and lip-reading
- This short article responds to a frequently asked question on the University College London’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre’s website, featuring a British Sign Language-interpreted video.
- This page provides a brief overview and a selection of links to ASL resources from Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf students, located in Washington, DC. One of the links leads to ASLpro.com, which features a dictionary that interprets English words and phrases into Sign.
- This real-life case concerns expert lip-reader Jessica Rees, whose credibility was thrown into question after her transcriptions were challenged at a UK court in 2005.