How do we communicate? What happens when we don’t communicate or when there are barriers that make communicating a challenge? Nina Raine’s original play, “Tribes,” presented by Georgia Regents University (GRU) Communications Department, attempts to tackle those questions and more as it follows the story of a man who was born deaf into a hearing family.
Billy (portrayed by Michael Silvio Fortino), spends much of his life feeling like an outsider in his own family before meeting Sylvia (portrayed by Raheema Johnson). Sylvia has adult onset hearing loss but grew up in a deaf family, so she learned sign language at an early age. Conversely, Billy’s family never learned to sign so he had to adapt to their world.
“It’s interesting, this play, you can look at it in a microcosm,” explains Doug Joiner, the play’s director. “Yeah, it’s about Billy who was born deaf to hearing parents — but it’s also about the struggles we all have with communication. And the lack thereof. In essence, the play asks us, how do we hear, how do we comprehend, how do we reconstruct? And I say reconstruct because memory is not reproductive — we reconstruct an intended meaning. Do we receive it, or is it only part and what trouble that might cause?”
The actors who play Billy and Sylvia had to learn sign language for their roles and Fortino said he really had to challenge himself to get into his character. One reason for that is because he is playing someone who is deaf.
“I had to put myself in a completely different place,” Fortino said. “Billy, obviously he’s deaf, so I have these hearing plugs which I put in my ear, and anytime I would catch myself look because I would hear someone talk — and I’d look, and think ‘Nope. No. You wouldn’t hear that.’ Even when my co-actors didn’t get my attention properly — if I feel like my character wouldn’t hear it, I wouldn’t look at them. Which has been very difficult.”
Fortino also said that learning to sign was only half the battle in preparing for the role. Learning to speak in the dialect of a deaf person was a bigger challenge.
The production of “Tribes,” has caught the attention of Lillian Wan, Gayle Tison and Debbi Quave, members of a local hearing loss advocacy group, Hearing Loss Association of Augusta, GA (HLAAG) who are interested in the play. Their perspectives on the experiences of Billy and Sylvia varied from person-to-person, but one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that parents of deaf children should be supportive of the child and whatever communication method he or she chooses. Also, it was agreed that one should try to not isolate themselves or the child.
“Unfortunately, I think most hearing people tend to avoid the deaf,” said Tison, the president of HLAGG. “They feel the deaf have their own ‘community’ and special friends and therefore do not need the friendship of outsiders. I think we all need to reach out to the deaf in a spirit of love to learn from them what we can do to help them.”
“Tribes,” is a story that explores the politics and psychology of being deaf, going deaf and the deaf community’s place in greater society, as well as the dynamics of a dysfunctional family.
“I really want people to come see this,” Fortino said. “More than just because it’s a great show, it’s just the message that it gives. It’s such a powerful piece that people really should know about and come see. This is real. This happens a lot. This is a real thing and it’s definitely given me a different outlook.”