A young man called Billy sits at the dinner table. As he eats, his mum, dad, brother and sister argue chaotically about topics as varied as smoked roe, circumcision and learning Chinese. Throughout, Billy stays silent. When his family leave, he sits alone, staring blankly into space.
This is the opening scene in the Royal Court's Tribes, which ends this weekend, and Billy, its central character, is profoundly deaf. No one tells him what they are talking about, speaks at a pace he can keep up with, or maintains eye contact so he can lipread them. The worst part is, he's not even angry. He's used to it.
For deaf people, Tribes is, finally, the real deal. Unlike the BBC's recent four-part drama The Silence, for example, it doesn't feel the need to link deafness to an extraneous event, like a murder, to interest a wider audience. It reveals the deaf experience with measured simplicity, through a family, at home, talking.
The 15-minute segment that introduces us to them is so ordinary and everyday that at first it's hard to believe it has wider significance. Then you realise that as well as missing his father's acerbic punchlines, his brother's mocking asides, and his mother gently trying to calm everyone down, Billy is also missing the mood, tone and nuance of proceedings.
Multiply this family meal by days, weeks and years, then add being lost in a buzz of chatter at school, sports clubs, weddings, work, pubs, restaurants and parties, and you begin to see how deaf people like Billy can miss out on life itself. When he finally asks his brother what's going on, all he gets by way of an explanation is: "Dad's being annoying. Again."
Billy only finds his voice when his girlfriend, who is going deaf, teaches him sign language. Newly politicised, he confronts his family and tells them he won't speak to them until they learn to sign. Why should he be the one to struggle to understand them? They are bemused, outraged, and hurt.
Here writer Nina Raine shows us the crossroads every deaf person reaches. Do you make the best of being deaf in a hearing world, straining and guessing at words you cannot hear? Or do you seek out other deaf people, and start to communicate in a way you can more easily understand?
My childhood was different to Billy's. My parents and brothers are deaf. We conversed and argued in a mixture of sign language, lipreading and speech according to our levels of deafness. Though hearing people often reacted with pity when they found out my family were deaf, my deaf friends thought the opposite: that we were lucky.
It is estimated that 90% of deaf people are born to hearing parents, so Tribes tells a story that the majority of deaf people can relate to. One man I know has seen the play three times, because it relates so closely to his own life. At the post-show discussion, a deaf audience member stood up to thank the writer and cast. She said that watching the opening scene was like watching herself at Christmas dinners with her relatives.
Do all deaf people go on to challenge their families? No. For most, it's a little less dramatic than that. But the sentiment, the feelings of frustration Billy goes through, ring true. And that's why Tribes is so important.
The great achievement of the play is to dramatise something that is very hard to understand unless you have personal experience of it. What it's like to be left out, as a child, then as an adult. Day in, day out. Just because you cannot hear. Tribes gives deaf people a voice.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
The Guardian in the UK:
Posted by BA Haller at 11:23 AM