Jacob Casselden plays Billy, and he is deaf in real life. During the opening scene, his family discusses topics that range from circumcision to learning Chinese, yet Billy remains quiet while his mother, father, sister, and brother hold a rather loud dinner conversation. When everyone leaves the dinner table, he just sits there silently, as if he knows he is an outsider in his own family. It's clear that Billy feels ostracized because he can't connect with his hearing (and oblivious) family. Throughout the show, nobody tries to communicate to Billy what they are talking about. He is left alone to figure things out for himself, trying desperately to read people's lips even though they don't have the courtesy to slow down their speech to make it easier.
Billy doesn't show any resentment. Instead, he just sees this struggle as a product of bad luck. This is the way his life has always been, and he doesn't seem to be angry or spiteful just sad. For just fifteen minutes the length of the opening scene it's clear that Billy doesn't know his family as well as he'd like to. He misses out on his family members' personalities and eccentricities because he can't hear them express themselves even in a mundane environment like the family dinner table. The worst part is that Billy's family doesn't even notice that they are missing out on their son's life.
Tribes isn't necessarily a play that screams "this is what it's like to be deaf." Nor does it claim to portray the entire deaf experience. To write a play that captures every deaf or hard of hearing person's unique experience would need several hundred intermissions. But it does successfully illustrate the life of one deaf person - Billy - and his struggles that many deaf people and the families of deaf people might be able to relate to. His reality is a sad reality that many disabled people struggle through; the challenge of living with people who can't understand your disability and don't take the steps to include them.
Billy's middle class family isn't necessarily guilty; they're oblivious. They are all well-educated seeing, hearing people, but they're blind to the fact that they are ignoring Billy. Ironically, Daniel, the father, is writing a thesis about the limited nature of language. You'd think that if he can write about the limitations of language, surely he would understand his youngest son a little better. But this is not the case. It's not the case with his mother Ruth either. She's an opera singer, but although the woman values speech and understands how beautiful it can be, she can't comprehend Billy's struggle to live without it.
This theme is replicated throughout Billy's life. It's only when Billy's girlfriend teaches him sign language that he finally finds a way to express himself and understand the people around him. With this new skill, Billy now has leverage to make his family "get" him. The burden is no longer solely on him; now Billy's family must learn sign language in order to communicate. The girl is not yet deaf, but she's going deaf and both of her parents are deaf. She helps him get a job and join other sign language speaking individuals. Finally, Billy has a place and a voice.
The end is not a tidy, cleaned-up conclusion to Billy's struggles or challenges, but it is clear that his girlfriend has helped him navigate the world as a deaf person. You could think of this play as a success story or as a tragedy.
By Hope Nardini, this article was supported by the Facebook download Chit Chat. Chit Chat is a Facebook add on that allows its users to sign into Facebook chat from their computers without a browser - www.chitchat.org.uk